Are ‘smoking kills’ warnings prompting people to smoke more?

The British Psychological Society’s blog has this astonishing report:

Researchers have found that death-related health warnings on cigarette packs are likely to encourage some people to smoke.

Jochim Hansen and his team took a group of student smokers and asked them to fill in a questionnaire to assess how much their self-esteem was linked to their cigarette habit.

Once that had been done, he separated them into two groups, giving one group cigarette packets covered in ‘smoking kills’ or ‘smokers die early’ messages and handing the other group less aggressively branded packets (‘smoking makes you unattractive’ for example).



Finally, all the students were asked to fill in a form probing their reactions to the messages – were they prompted to try to give up smoking by either the aggressive or the softer warning messages?

First: those whose self-esteem wasn’t found to be linked to smoking. The ones who found themselves in the group given death-related warnings on their cigarette packets reported – entirely naturally – more motivation to give up smoking than those who’d been placed in the group given weaker health messages.

But – and here’s the astonishing bit – for those whose self-esteem was linked to smoking the results were exactly the opposite. Those who looked at packets that warned that they might die reported more positive feelings about their habit.

In other words, for smokers who derive a self-esteem boost from smoking – perhaps they see it as a key part of their identity or they think it makes them look cool – a death-related cigarette packet warning can have the ironic effect of making them want to smoke more, so as to buffer themselves against the depressing reminder of their own mortality.

The findings suggest that for these kinds of smokers, packet warnings that target positive beliefs about smoking (e.g. ‘Smoking makes you look unattractive’) could well be more effective.


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