Study: Graphic Cigarette Warning Labels May Backfire

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Study: Graphic Cigarette Warning Labels May Backfire


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A University of Illinois study found that adding graphic warning labels to cigarette packaging may not push smokers to quit. In fact, it could have the opposite effect.

According to researchers at the school, many people perceive the graphic images as a threat to their freedom, choice or autonomy, and they respond accordingly.

"What we found is that most people don't like these warning labels, whether they are smokers or nonsmokers," said Nicole LaVoie, a doctoral student in communications and the lead author of the study, published online by the journal Communication Research.

"It makes them angry, it makes them express negative thoughts about the packaging, that they're being manipulated," LaVoie said. "Ultimately, it also makes them think that the source — the government in this case, mandating these labels — is being overly domineering, is being too much in their business."

The strongest response of this kind came from study participants who measured high in psychological reactance, a personality trait that makes them more prone to negative and resistant thoughts when they perceive they're being told what to do, she said.

In turn, this trait can produce something close to a boomerang effect, according to Brian Quick, a professor of communication and one of three co-authors of the paper, who has studied psychological reactance theory with other health issues. 

"If these individuals see things as freedom threats, they are going to be more attracted to perform the threatened behavior," Quick explained.

Since smokers tend to be somewhat higher in this trait, LaVoie said, "we might actually be doing harm to a group that might need the most help if they're battling an addiction to smoking."

The participants in the study were 435 undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 25, with a median age of 20. Smokers were 17.5 percent of the sample and nonsmokers (no smoking within the previous month) were 82.5 percent.

All study participants were given a cigarette package of the same popular brand, along with a questionnaire designed to measure certain personality traits, as well as their reaction to the package. Half of the smokers and half of the nonsmokers were given packages with graphic warning labels with one of seven images, and the other half were given packages with a text-only label like the ones now in use.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new warning labels for cigarette packaging in June 2011. However, after going several rounds in the courts, the agency said in 2013 it would scrap those nine warnings and start over again. One month later, in April 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 2009 federal law that requires warning labels on cigarettes and expanded marketing restrictions on tobacco products, as CSNews Online previously reported. The FDA has yet to implement new warning labels.