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How graphic warning labels could trigger thoughts of quitting

New research shows that viewing graphic anti-smoking images on cigarette packs triggers brain activity linked to emotion, decision-making and memory, suggesting that those images could effectively warn smokers about the health consequences of cigarettes.

Researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center and Truth Initiative reported their findings from a brain scanning study this week in Addictive Behaviors Reports.

Participants were shown 64 images of a cigarette pack for four seconds each. Among the images used were some displaying the graphic warning labels proposed for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that communicate the smoking-associated risks of lung disease, cancer, stroke, heart attack and reduced life longevity.

Participants who saw the graphic warning images were more likely to say they were motivated to quit smoking than those who did not see graphic images. Researchers found that so called “plain packaging” – packs with no brand names or imagery such as those being used in Australia —did not change participants’ responses. 

Regulators can and should use this research to craft more effective warning labels

"Regulators can and should use this research to craft more effective warning labels and messages to smokers that both deliver facts about the negative effects of smoking, and trigger thoughts and actions that move smokers toward quitting,” said Raymond S. Niaura, PhD, senior author of the study and director of Science at the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at Truth Initiative. “Tobacco is still the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. and the growing body of research showing the effectiveness of warning labels should energize policymaking.” 

Data collection for this study was supported in part through a contract from Truth Initiative. Manuscript preparation was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration Center for Tobacco Products (CA172217). This work was also supported in part by the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center Support Grant (P30CA051008).