Graphic Images on Cigarette Packs Help Smokers Quit, Study Finds

By May Wilkerson 06/09/16

Graphic pictures were found to work better than text-only warnings in a recent study about cigarette smoking habits. 

Graphic Images on Cigarette Packs Help Smokers Quit, Study Finds

Does a graphic image of a mouth full of rotting teeth, or a decomposing lung, make you think twice about buying that pack of smokes? If you answered yes, you’re not the only one.

According to a new study, if cigarette packages displayed these kinds of images, more smokers would try to kick the habit. Researchers said that smokers were more than 29% more likely to at least try quitting when they were given cigarette packs that visually display the detrimental effects of smoking.

Many other countries, like Canada and most recently France, already require tobacco companies to put these images on cigarette packs. Though the U.S. government has tried to implement similar regulations in the past, in 2012, a U.S. district judge ruled that this would violate tobacco companies' First Amendment rights. Recent rules set by the Food and Drug Administration require packs to include larger warning labels—but a picture says a thousand words.

In the study, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill gave stickers with either text-only or photo-enhanced warnings to 1,900 adult smokers, and had them put these stickers on their cigarette packs. "Smokers who received pictorial warnings were more likely to report a quit attempt lasting one day or longer during the trial than were smokers who received text-only warnings," wrote the researchers. They found that 40% of the smokers with images on their cigarettes at least tried to quit, compared to only 34% of those who had text-only warnings.

"Smokers told us that the pictorial warnings didn't make them feel any more at risk for harm from smoking,” said study lead Noel Brewer. “However, the pictorial warnings made the harms of smoking ever present and vivid, while the usual text warnings were bland, stale, and easy to ignore.”

By the end of the relatively short trial, 5.7% of smokers given pictorial warnings had quit smoking for at least one week compared with 3.8% given text-only warnings. "In relative terms, this is a 50% increase,” wrote the researchers. 

"Current warnings in the United States are small and barely noticeable, as they are on the side of the cigarette packages and have had the same messages for over 30 years," said Jim Thrasher, a public health researcher at the University of South Carolina who was not involved in the study. Could it be time for a new policy?

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.