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Study: Graphic Warning Labels May Not Deter Smoking

Graphic warning labels on cigarette packages, like these approved for use in the US, may not have the desired effect, according to a University of Illinois study.( L. Brian Stauffer)

Adding graphic images to cigarette packages to warn of the dangers of smoking doesn’t appear to be a deterrent, according to a new study.

Writing in the journal Communication Research, researchers from the University of Illinois say the main reason the warnings don’t work is that they are "perceived by many as a threat to their freedom, choice or autonomy, and they respond accordingly.

"What we found is that most people don't like these warning labels, whether they are smokers or nonsmokers," said Nicole LaVoie, a doctoral student in communication and the lead author of the study.

LaVoie added that the ads anger people and make them "express negative thoughts about the packaging, that they're being manipulated."

According to LaVoie, "Ultimately, it also makes them think that the source - the government in this case, mandating these labels - is being overly domineering, is being too much in their business."

For the study, researchers focused on 435 undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 25. Smokers made up 17.5 percent of the group. Two-thirds of the group were women and 62.3 percent identified as white. The rest identified as non-white or multiracial.

Each participant was given a package of a popular brand of cigarettes. Half of the smokers and half of the nonsmokers were given a package with graphic images, while the rest were given packages with written warnings that are currently used in the United States.

The graphic images had all been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for possible use in the U.S. They were supposed to be used starting in 2012, but there have been legal challenges to their use.

After viewing the package, the participants were given a questionnaire that measured personality traits as well as their reaction to the package.

The strongest reaction against the images came from people who “measured high in psychological reactance,” which researchers said makes the participants “more prone to negative and resistant thoughts when they perceive they're being told what to do.”

Researchers said smokers tend to measure highly in reactance, and graphic images can create a “boomerang effect”by causing people to do what they’re being warned against.

According to the study, countries where graphic images have been used have seen a drop in smoking rates, but LaVoie said the dips could also be explained by other measures to prevent smoking, like raising taxes on cigarettes and implementing smoking bans.

"We always measure and look at the intended effects, like encouraging people to quit smoking, but sometimes we don't remember to look at what else these messages are doing that we're not thinking about, like causing reactance," she said. "Our goal is to think about what can we do, what messages can we construct, that are effective for the whole, but also target these groups that are the most in need of help."