Gruesome pictures can get the US to quit smoking

For the first time in 25 years the FDA is bringing in new health warnings for cigarettes. The nine pictures that must appear on all adverts and cigarette packages sold in the US by September 2011 include a cancerous mouth with lesions and rotting teeth, a man smoking through a tracheotomy hole and a diseased lung.

Girl Smoking

Girl Exhaling Cigarette Smoke

When choosing the pictures, the FDA asked 18,000 people to evaluate an original pool of graphic images so they could select the ones that would make smokers more likely to want to quit, and nonsmokers less likely to take up smoking.

So will the move be successful? Although recent media coverage argues that macabre images are not persuasive or may backfire, provoking smokers into smoking more, research suggests otherwise.

Some smokers do respond with anger or indifference to alarming pictures on cigarette packages, but in numerous health surveys around the world many smokers report that graphic images motivate them to quit. Non-smokers say gross pictures deter them from ever picking up a cigarette.

Arguments

For a start, the argument that these labels tend to backfire is based on the understanding that they evoke a sense of fear. However, the nine images are not all terrifying. Rather, they are designed to evoke a range of emotions: disgust, shock, sadness and even optimism. One picture shows a man pulling back his jacket to reveal an “I quit” t-shirt.

According to Ellen Peters of Ohio State University, who conducted a 2007 study that found Canada’s morbid warning pictures would be effective in the U.S. too (Nicotine and Tobacco Research), the message is clear. “Graphic warning labels encourage negative emotional reactions to cigarettes and those emotions become associated with smoking cues,” she says. “The best experimental evidence we have so far is that graphic images will help to reduce smoking.”

In a survey conducted 6 years after Canada introduced pictorial warnings, more than 90 per cent of young people agreed that the pictures made smoking less attractive. Surveys in the UK and Australia revealed similar views.

“The new warnings are far superior to obscure text warnings that require college reading level,” says Hammond. “It’s a big step forward for the US.”

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