Those Graphic New Cigarette Labels Won't Help, Psychology Says

80beatsBy Valerie RossJun 25, 2011 1:00 AM


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Starting in September 2012, the FDA will require every pack of cigarettes sold in the US to be emblazoned with a large, text-and-image health warning, similar to the labels already seen in Canada, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and several other countries. The FDA unveiled the nine label designs earlier this week; several are quite graphic, including photos of cancerous lungs and lips and a man exhaling smoke through his tracheotomy hole. These graphic images, however, may not be an effective way to get smokers to quit, or deter new smokers from starting. Several neuroscience and psychology studies show that these fear tactics have little effect---and may at times do more harm than good. What's the Research:

What's the News:

  • In a 2006 study, smokers looked at cigarette warning labels from various countries as they lay in an MRI scanner, which measures blood flow in the brain. Brain regions associated with fear and alarm stayed relatively quiet. But the nucleus accumbens---an area associated with cravings, and a key player in the body's reward system---showed lots of activation. These warning labels weren't scaring smokers, the results suggest; the images were, strangely enough, making them crave a cigarette.

  • Health warnings in particular---rather than warnings that smoking makes you unattractive, for instance---can make some smokers feel better about the habit, not worse, one study shows. Psychologist Art Markman describes the study, and the psychological theories behind it, in full over at Huffington Post. The gist of it is that people's self-esteem takes a big hit when they're confronted by their mortality (e.g., a smoker faced with the fact that smoking could kill them). When smokers who strongly identify as such (as opposed to people who don't view smoking as an important part of who they are) see the warnings, they boost their self-esteem by reinforcing views that are important to them: in this case, that smoking is a positive thing. Being told smoking will kill them paradoxically makes them like smoking more.

  • In the same vein, another study found that heavy smokers inhale more deeply when faced with these warnings.

  • Behavioral psychologist Carol Tavris summed up the field this way, to Sara Reardon at ScienceInsider: "Social psychologists have decades of research showing that fear communications generally backfire, that people tune them out, and therefore that these tactics are generally not effective."

  • The FDA did its own research on the topic, as well. The agency asked 18,000 people to look at 36 possible images for the labels and measured, among other things, which images people tended to remember, whether smokers said an image made them want to quit, and whether non-smokers said an image made them never want to start. One thing the study didn't look at, Reardon points out, is actual behavior: whether people really quit or were deterred as a result of seeing the labels.

Image: FDA

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