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Graphic Cigarette Warnings May Actually Fire Up Smokers

Updated: Jul 5, 2019

As a former smoker and occasional social smoker, I’ve always had a personal interest in the marketing of cigarettes and anti-cigarette campaigns. I consider myself to be both the focus group and the observer. I, and as anyone else who has quit smoking will swear to, getting off cigarettes is one of the hardest things you will ever do. There are a million ways to quit but the most important ingredient to quitting is this and only this: motivation. You can throw in lectures by loved ones, scare tactics, and psychological games with yourself, but none of it matters without the strong desire to stop.

Witness the current FDA-mandated anti-smoking campaign to 43 million smokers in the United States: as of October 1, tobacco marketers had to cover the top half of cigarette boxes and 20% of tobacco advertisements with one of nine graphic anti-smoking images hand-picked by the government. This move is being challenged in court by tobacco companies, claiming it quashes free speech, but in the meantime they must comply. This mandate is also the biggest anti-smoking campaign to hit tobacco marketers since the 1984 requirement for stronger health warnings on cigarette packs, which now seem like child’s play.

Which brings us to who this campaign may actually affect, at least temporarily: children. Research suggests that younger brains are more susceptible to the influence of scary graphic images. I remember in an elementary school class, we were shown a mannequin with crispy black lungs and graphic images of hideous smoking consequences. I think back to how “grossed out” I was and committed to never smoking. But flash forward to age 13: I still tried cigarettes and ended up staying with them for 13 years. And to this day, even though I know smoking is disgusting and bad for you, I will still have one once in a while. Each smoker has their own story of how they started – be it peer pressure, a whim, or stress– but the common thread is that the smoker decides when to quit, not anyone else.

There is also no proof that these labels have any effect on adults. About 40 countries already have graphic labels on cigarette packages -Canada, Britain to name a few – but none have shown to reduce their smoking rates. Maybe that’s because graphic smoking images seem to have the opposite effect on their target audience. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that about half of the smokers said graphic images would make them more likely to quit, but another study by Martin Lindstrom, an expert in neuromarketing, found the exact opposite:  in his research, when smokers were exposed to negative words about lighting up, even though they said they were encouraged to quit, under MRI, the craving part of their brains lit up . In other words, tell me negative things about smoking and I actually get more excited about it. More research is needed of course, but it flies in the face of anti-smoking campaign logic and reinforces smokers’ desensitization to negative smoking campaigns. It also highlights a common paradox of research shown over many studies: participants often say what they think the researchers want to hear but not what they truly think inside.

And then there is one element stronger than fear-based marketing: addiction. Smokers and anyone else who knows its magnetic pull can vouch for this. That’s why you’ll see some people with a tracheotomy smoking through the hole in their throat. No one would argue that cigarette smoking is one of the worst long-term floggings you can do to your body, but ultimately the adult smoker is responsible for his or her life.

To be sure, the government is doing a positive thing to promote and encourage its citizens to abstain from smoking altogether or quit the habit with anti-smoking ad campaigns, high cigarette taxes, city restrictions and  the most direct marketing approach – cigarette label warnings – but a smoker’s motivation to quit comes from the inside, not from the packaging.


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