A research article published yesterday in PLOS One has cast doubt on the psychology behind graphic warning labels on cigarette packs, as such labels have not been shown to negatively influence smokers in their evaluation of smoking itself.
As part of a growing international effort to control tobacco use, countries around the globe have adopted the use of graphic warning (GW) labels on cigarette packs in an attempt to deter smoking behaviour. These labels take the form of a written message accompanied by an unpleasant image, such as a diseased mouth or blackened lung, and are designed with the intention to scare the tobacco consumer.
Previous studies have largely supported the efficacy of GWs in comparison to written (text-only) warning labels when it comes to grabbing attention and increasing people’s intention to quit smoking. Cigarette warning labels aim to convince consumers that smoking is dangerous, and GWs further aim to inspire fear in this respect.
In theory, GWs should result in smokers evaluating smoking more negatively. Yesterday’s article out of PLOS One reports on a study that shows the exact opposite.
The study was conducted by Peiter Van Dessel and Jan De Houwer from the department of Experimental-Clinical Health Psychology of Ghent University in Belgium, along with Jan De Houwer of the University of Florida.
7,757 subjects from 103 different countries participated, the majority of them from the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. After some participants were excluded based on the criteria of the study, data from 5833 subjects were analyzed, 64% of which were female. Of this group, 547 were classified as daily smokers, 1,167 occasional smokers, and 4,119 non-smokers. Participants were randomly selected to be shown one of 49 cigarette warning labels, 36 of which were images of GWs, and the remaining 13 of which were text-only.
After being asked to reflect on the label presented to them, participants were asked to complete two different tests. One, called an Implicit Association Test (IAT), aimed at measuring subjects’ positive or negative associations with smoking and non-smoking-related stimuli. The next was a test in which participants explicitly rated their “liking” of smoking, as well as their perception of smoking (positive or negative), both on a 7-point scale. Finally, participants were asked to recall the warning label they were presented with at the beginning of the study (which was either a GW or a text-only warning), and had to rate on a 6-point scale whether the warning would be “not very effective” to “extremely effective” at reducing smoking behaviour.
After data analyses, the results were as follows. Though non-smokers and occasional smokers who saw a GW rated it as more effective than those who saw a text-only warning did, the GWs did not result in more negative implicit associations than text-only warnings did in these groups.
For the occasional and daily smokers, GWs tended to result in more positive implicit associations of smoking. These effects were the same for daily smokers when it came to explicit evaluations of smoking, with GWs resulting in more positive associations than the text-only warning did.
The authors of this study offer several explanations for these counterintuitive results, a possibility being that smokers may try to resist negative feelings like fear that are sparked by GWs, or that a one-time exposure to a GW is insufficient in changing one’s implicit evaluations about their behaviour. Nevertheless, these results are surprising, and factors like psychological resistance to fear might need to be taken into account when designing more effective warning labels aimed at smokers.
However, Van Dessel and his colleagues urge that their findings do not negate previous studies that demonstrate the benefit of GWs when it comes to reducing smoking behaviour in the general population.