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Pictorial Health Warnings Designed to Curb Smoking

Pictorial Health Warnings Designed to Curb Smoking

On 1st February 2013, the Irish government introduced legislation requiring cigarette packs to carry imagery showing the dangers from smoking. There is conflicting evidence on whether this will have any impact on the smoking rate.

As of 2009, 29% of Irish adults describe themselves as regular smokers. The smoking rate in Ireland has remained stubbornly high over the last seven years – well above the worldwide average of 22%.

Could this new warning initiative encourage a drop in the numbers?

Canada was one of the first countries to introduce pictorial health warnings on cigarette packaging in 2000. Since the introduction, the prevalence of smoking among Canadians has dropped from 25% in 2001 to 17% in 2011.

However, not everyone is convinced. Branding expert, Martin Lindstrom, believes that warning labels are pointless and have no impact in discouraging smoking. In a study with the Centre for NeuroImaging Sciences, he presented evidence to suggest that warning symbols can have the opposite effect of turning consumers away from smoking.

In the study, volunteers who smoke regularly underwent an fMRI scan and were shown various different warning labels. When the warning labels were flashed in front of their eyes, an area of their brains called the nucleus accumbens (aka the ‘craving spot’) lit up in the fMRI graphs. Not only did the warning label have no effect in discouraging smoking – it resulted in the opposite effect and increased the urge and craving for a cigarette.

Labeling Could be Beneficial for Disadvantaged Communities

Smoking rates in Ireland tend to be higher in disadvantaged areas where the levels of literacy are below average. The pictorial health warnings may have a greater impact in these communities where text warnings may have been ignored in the past.

Tobaco manufactures have a tough time marketing their products. They are limited by advertising and sponsorship. The package is the last way to market their goods. After the recent move by Australia to ban all corporate branding, tobacco manufactures will be worried if this ban spreads to other countries. Ireland was the first European country to ban smoking in the workplace. Could they be the first to introduce plain cigarette packaging?