Graphic Smoking Labels May Not Deter Smokers from Cigarettes

First Posted: Feb 24, 2016 07:23 AM EST

Graphic images may not actually scare smokers away from smoking. Scientists have found that images of disease placed on labels may not deter smokers from buying cigarettes.

In this latest study, the researchers looked at 435 undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 25 with a median age of 20. Smokers were 17.5 percent of the sample and nonsmokers were 82.5 percent.

The researchers gave the participants a cigarette packages of the same popular brand, along with a questionnaire used to measure certain personality traits and 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. The other half were given packages with a text-only label.

"What we found is that most people don't like these warning labels, whether they are smokers or nonsmokers," said Nicole LaVoie, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It makes them angry, it makes them express negative thoughts about the packaging, that they're being manipulated. 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."

In fact, the researchers found that the strongest response of this kind came from participants who measured high in psychological reactance, which is a personality trait that makes them more prone to negative and resistant thoughts when they perceive they're being told what to do. In some cases, this trait can produce a boomerang effect, which makes them more attracted to perform whatever it is they're "forbidden" from doing.

The findings reveal that images may not be nearly as effective as hoped. In addition, graphic labels may actually harm the goal of trying to get people to quit smoking rather than helping.

The findings are published in the journal Communication Research.

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