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Cigarette warning labels could be made more effective by including body parts, testimonials

Pictorial warnings on cigarette boxes are mandatory by law in at least 120 countries around the world and have proven to be a great tool forcing smokers away from cigarettes.

While almost all major countries have implemented pictorial warnings, United States still haven’t done so and cigarette packs across the country only come with textual warnings.

The pictorial warnings on cigarette boxes are absent despite a 2009 Congressional act instructing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement these warning labels. A new court order issued in September 2018 says the FDA must speed up its timeline for the implementation of pictorial warning labels.

A new study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania aims to contribute valuable research toward this end. Researchers analyzed more than 300 pictorial warning labels to determine which features most effectively get smokers to quit. They found that testimonial frameworks and images of diseased body parts were the most effective individual features.

It makes sense, then, that images of diseased body parts and smoking horror stories told by real people would be most influential in getting smokers to stop smoking. No one wants to end up as the testimonial on a cigarette pack.

To analyze the various features used in pictorial warning labels, the researchers collected more than 300 warning labels from various sources. They used pictorial warning messages on cigarette packs in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom; pictorial warning messages proposed by the FDA that have not been implemented; a set of anti-smoking messages produced by tobacco companies; testimonial pictorial warning messages developed for an experimental study; and pictorial ads used in various local and national campaigns.

The researchers identified 48 objective features that could be present in the ads, including factors like image color, photo type, presence of male or female characters, presence of medical equipment, and argument type. They then recruited nearly 1,400 current smokers to view the ads and answer questions about how the ads affected them.

The researchers say they hope that this study can offer generalizable guidelines for label designers to create more effective pictorial warning messages, which will eventually impact smoking-related attitudes and promote behavior change. In upcoming studies, they will focus on the relationship between text that appears on the labels and the pictorial elements.

James Anderson

Having developed startups for the better part of the last decade, James now covers healthcare stories with a business slant. Email: james@askhealthnews.com

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