Cigarette warning labels effective, study finds
Hard-hitting messages: Affecting behaviour of tobacco users, researchers discover
Graphic images on cigarette packages of diseased organs and rotten teeth not only grab smokers' attention, they make them more likely to quit the habit, a new Canadian study has concluded.
The survey by researchers from the University of Waterloo and elsewhere is being billed as the first of its kind -- and a powerful endorsement of a measure the tobacco industry has vigorously fought.
Canada was the first country to adopt such warnings and only Brazil has followed suit. The new study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, could provide ammunition for more governments to take similar action, said David Hammond, a University of Waterloo psychologist and one of the paper's authors.
"People who read and discuss these graphic warning labels are more likely to make a quit-attempt, cut down or actually quit smoking," he said in an interview.
Tobacco industry representatives could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Past research has established that the labels, which carry a written advisory about health risks and a photograph to illustrate the message, are an effective way of educating people about the dangers of smoking.
The new study showed for the first time that they also have an effect on tobacco users' behaviour, Mr. Hammond said.
The researchers from Waterloo and the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit interviewed 616 smokers in southwestern Ontario in October and November, 2001, discovering that 91% of them had read the warning labels.
The group was surveyed again three months later. Researchers discovered that the more the smokers were aware of the warning labels, the more likely they were to have tried to quit, to reduce how much they smoked or to have given up cigarettes altogether.
The study also found that even 12 months after the warning labels had been introduced by Health Canada, they were still having an impact, despite previous suspicions that smokers might grow to simply ignore the graphic images.
Their continued effectiveness might be a result in part of having several different labels, the paper said.
Mr. Hammond said the warnings appear to be a low-cost anti-smoking measure that the desired audience cannot help but constantly notice. "Pack-a-day smokers are potentially exposed to graphic warnings 7,000 times a year," he said. "That's a really incredible intervention."
More countries are likely to consider new types of warning labels for cigarette packages in the coming months under the UN-sponsored Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Mr. Hammond said. It recommends graphic labels akin to Canada's.
Canada's biggest tobacco companies had tried to have the labels, and other anti-smoking measures, struck down in court. They argued the labels violated their right to free speech and sought to have the federal Tobacco Act struck down as unconstitutional.
But Justice Andre Denis of Quebec Superior Court ruled in December, 2002, that the manufacturers' rights could not be given the same legitimacy as the government's duty to protect public health.
Several months ago, Canada's largest tobacco company went on the offensive in a bid to turn public opinion against Health Canada's anti-smoking campaign. Imperial Tobacco Canada posted a provocative message on its Web site raising questions about whether Health Canada's $480-million, five-year Tobacco Control Strategy -- which funds everything from hard-edged TV ads to smoking cessation programs -- is producing sound policies.
For years, the company has complained the government's anti-smoking ads -- which use a strategy to discredit or "denormalize" the tobacco industry -- is actually an unfair demonization of a legal industry that pays billions of dollars in taxes.
But Canada's new Public Health Minister, Carolyn Bennett, says governments have the "moral responsibility" to warn Canadians about the dangers of lifestyle choices -- ranging from smoking to poor diets.
In an interview with CanWest News Service, Ms. Bennett said she has no intention of softening the anti-tobacco warnings, adding she is a believer in the controversial denormalization ads first used successfully in such U.S. states as California.