Graphic warning labels may improve smokers’ recall

    New research suggests adding graphic images to cigarette warning labels may make smokers more likely to remember their messages.

    University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor Andrew Strasser showed 200 daily smokers one of two different warning labels.

    One had just text. The other came with an image:

    “This person in the image is on a respirator with tubes coming out of them in a hospital bed,” Strasser said.

    Those who saw the warning with the image were more likely to correctly remember the text of the warning.

    And, Strasser said, eye-tracking technology showed participants spent more time looking at the warning with the image than the one without.

    Some previous research had suggested that scary images such as diseased lungs made smokers turn away more quickly and absorb less of the warning message, but Strasser said his study challenges that.

    “Some of the opponents to the graphic warning labels claim the graphic images evoke too much of a negative response, they’re disgusting or repulsive,” Strasser said. “But actually we see that they’re viewing it for a significant amount of time.”

    Graphic and sometimes gruesome warning labels were scheduled to be on all packages of cigarettes in the U.S. by this fall, but a federal judge ruled the provision unconstitutional.

    “Just because it’s smoking and just because it’s a so-called vice product doesn’t mean that the companies don’t have First Amendment rights,” said David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

    Hudson said the case is in appeals now and will likely be decided by the Supreme Court.

    Anna Tobia, head of Thomas Jefferson University’s smoking cessation program, is in favor of the new FDA warning labels. But she acknowledges smokers remembering warning labels is not the same thing as smokers quitting.

    Smokers already know smoking is bad for them, she said.

    “The hope is that as people become more aware of this, and that (as) these health risks are more pronounced, it’s going to deter people from smoking,” Tobia said.

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