Cigarette packets with serious health warnings could actually encourage people to continue smoking, research suggests.
According to a study, smokers who are continunally confronted with warnings that cigarettes kill actually develop coping mechanisms to justify continuing their habit.
Comparatively, if smokers are shown warnings suggesting the habit could make them unattractive, they are more likely to give up. Teenagers who took up the habit to impress or fit in with their peers were more likely to be influenced by warnings about their appearance, the study found.
“In general, when smokers are faced with death-related anti-smoking messages on discount cigarette packs, they produce active coping attempts as reflected in their willingness to continue the risky smoking behaviour,” the study said.
“To succeed with anti-smoking messages on cigarette packs one has to take into account that considering their death may make people smoke.”
The study from the United States, Switzerland and Germany, led by Jochim Hansen of New York University and the University of Basel, asked 39 psychology students who said they were smokers, aged between 17 -41.
Participants filled in a questionnaire determining how much their smoking was based on self-esteem, before being shown cigarette packets with different warnings on them. Half of them read warnings such as “Smoking leads to deadly lung cancer”, while the other half had warnings about attractiveness.
After a 15-minute delay the students were asked more questions about their smoking behaviour and if they intended to quit.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that cigarette packets with death-related warnings were not effective and even caused more positive smoking attitudes.
“On the other hand, warning messages that were unrelated to death effectively reduced smoking attitudes the more recipients based their self-esteem on smoking.
“This finding can be explained by the fact that warnings such as ‘Smoking brings you and the people around you severe damage’ and ‘Smoking makes you unattractive’ may be particularly threatening to people who believe the opposite, namely that smoking allows them to feel valued by others or to boost their positive self-image.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “Health warnings on tobacco packaging have played an important role in helping smokers understand the risks of smoking and where to get help to quit. Research from around the world has shown that different people react to different types of messages to motivate them to attempt to quit.
“In October 2008, the UK was the first nation in the European Union to introduce graphic picture warnings to cigarette packets that showed smokers the grim reality of the effects smoking can have on their health. We are now currently working with the European Commission to develop new pictorial warnings for tobacco packaging, including testing different types of messages with smokers.”
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