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Why the New Warning Images on Cigarettes Won't Curb Smoking

by Guy McCardle

June 27, 2011

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Donate After September of 2012 cigarette packaging and advertising in the U.S. will have a new, supposedly stronger anti-smoking message. These are the first such changes made to the packaging in 25 years. Will they do a bit of good to make people stop smoking or keep people from taking up the habit? I'm skeptical. That is to say, I wouldn't bet the farm on it. It may make a few people with very weak stomachs think twice about taking up the habit, but I doubt even that. If you have not seen the new visual warning messages that will appear on every box of smokes in the U.S., click here.

Similar images appear on cigarette packaging around the world. As a point of comparison with what our FDA considers to be graphic, check out what Brazil puts on each and every one of their cigarette packs. Be forewarned, the images are graphic and disturbing. Click here to see.

Pretty nasty stuff, but so is the very real suffering and death of the over 450,000 Americans killed by smoking each year. Unfortunately, the new images won't do any good to deter people from smoking. First let me state what the FDA says the new warnings are supposed to do. According to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, they are supposed to "encourage smokers to quit and prevent children from smoking". That is indeed an admirable goal. However, recent scientific studies show the new warnings may even be counterproductive.

Author Martin Lindstrom was curious to know if the graphic images already present on tobacco products in the UK and Australia affected smoking rates, so he employed brain scans to find out. In his book, Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, he discusses the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) on 2,000 test subjects from five different countries in order to get past what people say and discover how they really react to advertising and marketing.

The test subjects were asked if the disturbing images had the effect of making them want to stop smoking, and most of them said they did. Lindstrom's team then hooked the test subjects up to medical imaging devices and showed them the same tobacco packaging as before. The resulting images revealed that seeing the pictures on the cigarette labels actually activated the brain’s “craving spots.” The warnings didn’t make people want to quit. They made people want to smoke more.

This wasn't the first scientific study of the neurobiological effects of offensive images on the desire to smoke cigarettes. In 2005 Maurice Ptito, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, used magnetic imaging brain scans to study how volunteers reacted to 15 images appearing on cigarette packs. This study was done to gauge the impact of the Canadian government's anti-smoking campaign. Less disturbing images, such as pregnant women smoking, didn't have a measurable effect on any of the subjects regardless of whether they smoked or not. Smokers in the group were not even phased by the most graphic images. Ptito attributed this to a combination of "habituation and denial". "The ads are maybe not the best thing to discourage people [from smoking]," Mr. Ptito said. "If I have an addiction, why would I like to look at something that reminds me I'm going to die?"

Here is my take on the matter. Disgusting images have a visceral impact on humans. They make us want to look away. Many studies have documented the role of our brains' insular cortex (or insula) on disgust and motivation. Revolting images are processed in this region and lead to the visceral responses. When we see images such as those on the Brazilian cigarette packages, we tend to close our eyes or look away. We avoid the stimulus. That is exactly why the images don't work; they lead to decreased attention to the information. Also, the psychological message to avoid the warning image never becomes connected to the cigarettes themselves. Warnings of this type would only have a chance of working if they were so revolting that people would never even touch the packaging.

What could possibly curtail smoking if the very real threat of death or disabling disease won't do it? Money. Only when the the cost of smoking is so unattainably high that we simply cannot afford it might SOME of those addicted to nicotine give up the habit. Lack of knowledge of the effects of cigarette smoke is not why people continue their habit. They know that they will not die from it today, so it is put out of their mind for the time being. Cigarettes remain the only legal product that I can think of, when, used as directed, cause death.


by Guy McCardle

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