Canada's cigarette label packs a greater punch

In 1984, Congress authorized the use of four interchangeable printed statements on cigarette packages. The tiny black-and-white messages are still in use...

Ask any advertiser which is More effective - words or images - and the answer is almost always the same: Visuals pack a greater punch.
Think low-cost car insurance. What first comes to mind? The rates, or an animated gecko with an Australian accent?

In 1984, Congress authorized the use of four interchangeable printed statements on cigarette packages. The tiny black-and-white messages are still in use today, squeezed on the side of each pack.

In 2000, Canada requiRed cigarette packages to contain large, colorful - and graphic - warning labels. Rotting teeth. A brain damaged by stroke. A preemie on life support. The labels also contain facts about smoking hazards. Since then, cigarette smoking among teens and adults in Canada has dropped to the loWest levels seen in that country.

By comparison, cigarette smoking in the United States has declined only slightly in recent years. Among high-school-age teens, it actually is creeping back upward. Each day, More than 4,000 young people start smoking.

Why do colorful warnings work better than a simple text message? There is considerable evidence that they carry a greater emotional or "affective" punch.

The theory goes like this: Over millennia, humans learned to associate ingestion of substances that produced short-term pleasure with cues that said this berry, bark or beast is consumable. The nicotine found in Cigarettes fools the brain into thinking the same thing.

The negative consequences of smoking - from stained fingers and coughing to emphysema, heart disease and lung cancer for some - are not tied tightly enough to those first hundRed Cigarettes to tell the brain that smoking is bad.

This phenomenon is called "the affect heuristic": People rely on the affect (in this instance, the nicotine rush) when judging the risk/benefit of a certain action (smoking). As a result, the cognitive shortcut humans norMally use to assess behavior misfires.

Visually evocative labels are an attempt to emotionally connect smoking to its long-term consequences, thereby signaling the brain to avoid, not embrace, the product.

But does the theory work in practice? Our research, published earlier this year in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, suggests that such warning messages have the power to alter smoking behavior. We evaluated the affective reaction of U.S. smokers and nonsmokers to the familiar U.S. cigarette pack labels compaRed Canadian labels. The findings? Colorful, graphic warnings serve as an important deterrent for potential smokers - and would encourage current smokers to quit.

The Canadian labels were found to be "More emotionally powerful" than the bland text in U.S. labels, according to our study. FurtherMore, when asked whether they would support the use of More graphic warnings on Cigarettes, a majority of current smokers said yes.

Congress returns to Washington this week and is expected to take up legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products. In the Senate, 53 members have signed on in support. In the House, similar legislation has 195 co-sponsors. One important provision of both bills requires larger and More informative warning labels that cover at least the top 30 percent of the front and back of the cigarette packages. An amendment to the Senate bill actually requires adoption of Canadian-style warnings. (Dozens of countries have similar requirements.)

It has taken More than a decade to build bipartisan support for this crackdown on a product that kills More than 400,000 Americans a year and condemns nearly 78,000 kids each year to a premature death.

It's time to close the logic loop. Tough warnings work. Weak ones do not. Those who want kids to avoid Cigarettes and want those who have started to quit should support House Resolution 1108 and Senate Bill 625. The result: Warning labels that actually pack a punch.

 

 

 


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