Those Gruesome Photos on Cigarette Packs Probably Work

Seventy-seven countries require them, but not the United States.
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(Photo: Andy Bullock/Flickr)

(Photo: Andy Bullock/Flickr)

If you've ever seen a cigarette pack with a photo depicting some of the nastier health problems smoking can cause, you probably know firsthand how convincing those images can be. Now, a new meta-analysis of previous studies offers scientific evidence that such photo warnings are more effective than their text-only counterparts at catching people's attention and strengthening the desire to quit smoking.

Although this conclusion seems commonsensical, it is nevertheless one that benefits from science. It's often difficult to assess how helpful any one anti-smoking measure is because countries roll out many such laws at once. Controlled studies, by contrast, can try to tease out the effects of specific laws. In addition, a previous meta-analysis had found there wasn't enough evidence to show whether photographic warnings on cigarette packs made more people quit smoking. This new analysis, published online Wednesday by the journal Tobacco Control, offers some scientific evidence that the photos indeed do help.

Science like this could help courts that want to pass laws requiring photo warnings, which companies have fought against in the United States and elsewhere.

So what can pictures offer to countries that want to encourage their citizens to smoke less? The Tobacco Control analysis, which included 37 studies conducted in 16 countries, found that:

COMPARED TO TEXT-ONLY WARNINGS, PICTURES:

  • Held people's attention for longer
  • Seemed more credible
  • Made people's attitudes toward smoking more negative
  • Made people less willing to pay for cigarettes
  • Strengthened people's desire to quit smoking, or not to start

HOWEVER, PICTURES DIDN'T:

  • Help people remember the content of warnings better
  • Make people believe more in their ability to quit

"This has important implications for what policy the United States should implement," the analysis' lead author, University of North Carolina communications researcher Seth Noar, said in a statement. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wanted to require cigarette boxes to include photos, but a court ruled against the requirement in 2012 after tobacco companies sued.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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