Smokers Avert Eyes From Cigarette Pack Warnings, Study Finds

man putting pack of cigarettes in pocket

In the U.S., federal law requires cigarette manufacturers to place warnings on their products that outline the serious health risks associated with cigarette use. These warnings are meant to deter people from smoking and also to encourage current smokers to cut down on their cigarette intake or stop smoking altogether. In a study published in March 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of British researchers investigated the effectiveness of cigarette pack warnings in reaching their target audiences. These researchers concluded that habitual cigarette smokers (most of whom are nicotine addicts) commonly take active steps to avoid reading cigarette pack warnings.

The Basics

Nicotine is the powerful substance responsible for triggering cases of addiction in people who regularly use cigarettes or other tobacco products. Doctors and researchers have long known that tobacco users can come to depend on this substance relatively rapidly and often experience particularly intense forms of addiction. When teenagers take up smoking, they can develop clear symptoms of an addictive relationship to nicotine after inhaling as few as five cigarettes. In addition, when they try to quit without the help of a professional, the vast majority of both teen and adult habitual users fail within seven days or less. One of the main reasons for the highly addictive nature of nicotine is the very brief timespan of the euphoric feelings triggered by the substance’s presence in the brain. In order to keep experiencing those feelings, smokers must inhale more and more nicotine-containing cigarette puffs. In turn, frequent re-exposure to nicotine makes the brain dependent on the substance fairly rapidly.

Cigarette Pack Warnings

Public health officials in different countries try different approaches when attempting to draw attention to the anti-smoking messages present on cigarette packaging. In the U.S., there is a movement toward the use of highly graphic warnings meant to get through to modern-day cigarette users raised in graphics-heavy social and cultural environment. Some European countries have tried another route by passing regulations that require cigarette manufacturers to eliminate the distinctive branding used to advertise their products and adopt plain packaging that makes anti-smoking warnings stand out much more prominently. No one can say for sure if the packaging changes will have their desired effects. In fact, some of the evidence gathered in Europe indicates that, while the plain-packaging approach does work for deterring people who don’t smoke regularly and people who don’t smoke at all, it does not have an impact on the cigarette intake of teen or adult habitual smokers.

Avoiding Warnings

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the British research team used an examination of 30 adults to help determine why warnings on cigarette packs don’t apparently alter the cigarette use behaviors of habitual cigarette smokers. All of these adults were daily smokers affected by nicotine addiction. Prior to beginning the study, the researchers identified three potential causes for the lack of cigarette warning effectiveness in the target group of smokers: previous familiarity with the messages provided by these warnings, a preference for branding information over health warnings and active attempts to avoid looking at the warning messages printed on cigarette packs.

During the study, the researchers used measurements of each participant’s eye movements to test his or her willingness to focus on the warning information on a variety of cigarette packs. Some of these packs were plain or completely blank, while others carried the branding information normally found on cigarette packs in the U.S. and many other countries. In addition, while some of the packs contained widely used warning messages, others contained messages not currently or previously in broad circulation.

The researchers concluded that habitual smokers don’t respond to the anti-smoking messages on cigarette packs because they actively avert their vision from these messages and avoid reading them. This behavior occurs even when habitual smokers look at plain cigarette packs that contain no information other than a warning message. This behavior also occurs whether or not the message contained on a given cigarette pack is familiar to a habitual smoker.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence believe that habitual cigarette smokers may teach themselves to avoid looking at the warnings printed on the cigarette packs they inevitably see on a regular basis. They also believe that the study’s results may provide public health officials with important lessons on what does and does not work for anti-smoking packaging efforts.

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