Monitor on Psychology - December 2011 - (Page 56)
for example, Hammond and Fong found that smokers who said they had read, thought about and discussed Canada’s thenrecently implemented graphic warning labels were significantly more likely to have tried to quit three months later. And government reports from both the United Kingdom and Brazil found that calls to national cigarettequitting helplines increased significantly after those countries introduced graphic warning labels.
Not all researchers are convinced that the new warnings are a good idea. The graphic labels could have unintended consequences.
An avoidance effect But not all researchers are convinced that the new warnings are a good idea. The graphic labels could have unintended consequences, says Rob Ruiter, PhD, a psychology professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Although smokers may say that the warnings encourage them to quit, Ruiter has found that scary images may make smokers react defensively, quickly turning their attention away from the warnings and discounting the warning message. In one study, published in Health Psychology in 2009, he showed 30 cigarette-related images to 15 smokers and 15 nonsmokers. Half of the images were scary, such as a diseased lung, and half were not, such as a picture of a healthy-looking person smoking. Using EEG, Ruiter found that smokers had less activity in an attention-related area of the brain when they switched from looking at the scary images to looking at different, target, images than when they switched from the neutral images to target images. That, he says, suggests that it was easier for them to pull their attention away from a scary image because they had already “disengaged” from it. Such lab results, Ruiter says, suggest that smokers’ subconscious defensive reactions may mean that they ignore the scary warnings, making the warnings less effective than policymakers believe they are. Other researchers have found similar effects using self-report measures. In one British study, published in Health Psychology in 2007, University of Sheffield psychologist Peter Harris, PhD, showed both smokers and nonsmokers graphic cigarette warning images and asked them to rate how threatening they found the pictures, and how personally relevant. The smokers found the pictures no more personally relevant than the nonsmokers did, and actually found them less threatening. “That seems ludicrous,” says Harris. “But it suggests the smokers were being defensive.” Ruiter believes that there are more effective ways to combat
smoking than scary warning messages. “Why use fear when there are much more effective tools?” he says. “Price increases, public bans [on smoking in public places] … are much more effective than telling people how bad smoking is. People already know it’s bad.” Fong and Hammond, however, say that Ruiter’s objections miss several points. First, a lab-based study like the one described above looks only at the effect of a single viewing of a scary image. But a pack-a-day smoker would view warning labels thousands of times each year. “If you’re just dealing with single exposures, you don’t have the sense of the richness of the experience,” Fong says. “If you do a single experiment, you’re looking at a different thing than the way these are presented in the real world.” In addition, Hammond says, the ITC survey does suggest that many people consciously try to avoid the graphic warning labels — about 30 percent of smokers say they try to cover the warnings up. But, Hammond says, when they followed up with those smokers, the people who tried to avoid the warnings were no less likely than those who didn’t to say they’d thought about the warnings later. “It’s a bit like the classic pink elephant,” Hammond says. “The more you try not to think about it, the harder it is.” Finally, Fong points out that increasing the size of cigarette warning labels has anti-smoking benefits beyond the packages’ messages. In many countries, cigarette advertising is limited by law, so packaging is an important way that cigarette makers can market their product and build their brand. When warning labels take up 50 percent of a package’s real estate — and draws attention from whatever else is on it — that marketing opportunity is diminished. “The graphic warning labels interrupt the message that the industry is trying to convey,” Fong says. And the tobacco industry, at least, seems to be convinced that the new warning labels will be effective. In November, four U.S. tobacco companies won a lawsuit claiming that the new FDA-required labels violate their right to free speech. The Justice Department has not yet said whether it will appeal the ruling. n Click here to see a slideshow of cigarette warnings from around the world.
Monitor on psychology • DeceMber 2011
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