Graphic warnings on cigarette packets proven to drive smoker quit rate, finds study

A Harvard study has found images like the one above to be effective in stopping smoking
A Harvard study has found images like the one above to be effective in stopping smoking
Have your say

Graphic warnings on cigarette packs are an effective way of persuading smokers to quit, according to a new study.

The new research, carried out by public health experts in the US, found hard-hitting graphic tobacco warnings help smokers from a diverse range of backgrounds who are struggling to quit.

• Graphic images found to be bigger deterrant than text labels

• Labels effective at reaching poorer smokers

Researchers found disadvantaged groups stand to benefit the most from hard-hitting labels as people from poorer backgrounds tended to be more likely to smoke and suffer ill-health as a result of their habit.

Researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and Legacy Foundation, a US-wide national public health foundation devoted to reducing tobacco use, found bold pictures which show the health consequences of smoking are a useful tool on warning smokers of the damages and encouraging some people not to take up the habit.

The study was the first to examine the effectiveness of pictorial warning labels, including images of people with smoking-related cancers and other illnesses, versus text-only warning labels across all social and economic groups in society.

It found text-only cigarette warnings are less likely to be noticed or have an impact on reducing smoking or encouraging users to quit.

Poorer smokers

Dr Jennifer Cantrell, assistant director of research at Legacy, said: “Interventions that have a positive impact on reducing smoking among the general population have often proven ineffective in reaching disadvantaged groups, worsening tobacco-related health disparities.

“It’s critical to examine the impact of tobacco policies such as warning labels across demographic groups.

“The implementation of graphic warning labels appears to be one of the few tobacco control policies that have the potential to reduce communication inequalities across groups.”

Senior author Vish Viswanath, associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health, said: “There is a nagging question whether benefits from social policies accrue equally across ethnic and racial minority and social class groups.

“This study shows graphic health warnings would benefit all groups. Given the disproportionate burden of tobacco-related disease faced by the poor and minorities, mandating strong pictorial warnings is an effective and efficient way to communicate the risk of tobacco use.”

The new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, examined reactions to cigarette warning labels from more than 3,300 smokers.

Results show hard-hitting, pictorial graphic warnings are more effective than text-only versions, with smokers indicating the labels are more impactful, credible and have a greater effect on their intentions to quit.

And the study found that the stronger impact of pictorial warnings was similar across vulnerable subpopulations, with consistent reactions across race, education and income.

The study found smokers who looked at the graphic images were 30 percent more likely to say they would quit within the next month than those who looked at the text warnings. The findings were consistent across groups regardless of race, education or income.

Plain packaging

Picture warnings are used on many brands of cigarettes sold in the UK. MSPs at Holyrood are looking into whether cigarette packaging should be made plain to make smoking less attractive.

However a number of large tobacco companies have already started legal challenges against changes to the packaging.

Australia recently became the first country in the world to make plain packaging, which does allow for health warnings, to be introduced on all tobacco products.

Around a quarter of people aged over 18 smoke in Scotland and smoking costs Scotland’s economy nearly £1.1bn a year, anti-smoking campaign group ASH claims.

The charity believes tobacco duty needed to be increased and funding boosted to cover smoking prevention services.