How to Quit Smoking: Don't Listen to Graphic Cigarette Ads

A study published this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine suggests that graphic cigarette warning labels are more memorable than the standard text warnings that currently appear on the side of every cigarette pack.

Beginning this fall, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to slap one of the grotesque labels on every pack of cigarettes. The tobacco industry's legal challenge may prevent the new policy from taking effect, but the researchers and media are claiming the study as evidence that the graphic warnings will reduce smoking. There's no doubt that a picture of a man smoking through a hole in his neck is more memorable than a text warning about the dangers of tobacco, but there isn't a bit of evidence that the shocking images will do anything to reduce cigarette consumption. 

This is easy enough to establish by looking at the study by itself. The researchers randomized 200 current daily smokers into two groups. The first group viewed the text-only warning, and the second group viewed a new graphic warning. Following the experiment, 83 percent of those in the graphic warning group accurately recalled the content of the warning when tested, compared to only 50 percent in the text-only warning group. As a result the researchers conclude that “Graphic warning labels should be incorporated into cigarette advertisements without delay..."

The recall difference in the study is no doubt impressive, but recalling the warning isn't the same thing as quitting because of the warning. Establishing that the second relationship exists seems incredibly difficult to do for a variety of reasons. Here's just one. Most smokers who attempt to quit relapse six months into their attempt, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Those who give up the habit for good often do so with some form of nicotine replacement therapyand extensive behavioral therapy, the NIH also explains. Anyone who thinks people who have spent years developing an addiction will give it up because of some disturbing photos is being dumb on purpose. 

So the warnings aren't enough to make smokers quit by themselves. But maybe a picture of an autopsy on that next pack of Camel Lights will at least motivate some smokers to make an attempt to quit. Probably not. Since the battle over the health effects of smoking broke out in the 1960s, the number of smokers in this country has dropped dramatically, but it hasn't dropped easily. 

Increasing cigarette prices, extensive smoking bans, and a growing social stigma have all made smoking less appealing, to the point that less than 13 percent (The number varies slightly) of Americans currently light up on a daily basis. But that's many decades of very expensive tobacco control we're talking about. By comparison, the potential effect of the new warnings is probably negligible. Parenthetically, with smoking cessation rates like that, why is yet another tobacco control measure necessary? 

But even if the new warnings do reduce smoking, there will be no way to measure the impact. As Reason's Jacob Sullum points out, the huge drop in the number of smokers and existing regulations will make it "... impossible to isolate the impact of more-conspicuous hectoring on cigarette packages."

Let's give them credit. The anti-tobacco lobby has waged a marvelously effective, decades-long campaign against tobacco use. Cigarette are dangerous; now everybody knows it. So, can we stop pestering the relatively few people who still choose to smoke?

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Cameron English

I cover public health, nutrition and science education for PolicyMic. I also write critical thinking exercises for high school science textbooks. My previous work includes freelance writing and editing for Science 2.0. I've never been paid by Monsanto for my opinions, though that would be awesome.

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