Research from the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Research Center found that pictorial warnings are more effective at dissuading cigarette usage than messages containing only text, according to a study released on Sept. 14 in “Nicotine and Tobacco Research”.

Spearheaded by Darren Mays, assistant professor of oncology at the Georgetown University Medical Center, the study was done as part of ongoing research conducted by the center in coordination with the American Cancer Society.

“My research focuses on behavioral cancer prevention — how the onset of cancer can be prevented through behavior change, such as preventing tobacco use and helping tobacco users to quit,” Mays said. “It is the public health impact of tobacco use on lung cancer and other diseases that inspired this work.”

The study evaluated the effectiveness of different types of warning labels in motivating smokers to quit. The researchers asked standardized questions about participants’ attitudes toward smoking and then evaluated how different types of pictorial warning messages worked best for people with different attitudes towards smoking. He stressed the importance of message framing, or the way in which the researchers pose their questions in order to elicit a certain kind of response.

“We looked at an idea called message framing for the warnings. When we communicate information about health risks, it can be done two ways — emphasizing either the benefits of changing a risky behavior or the risks of a behavior,” Mays said.

The idea for the study arose from the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which mandated that pictorial warnings cover half of the cigarette pack to show the health risks of smoking.

In addition to the effectiveness of pictorial messages, the study found that gain-framed messages, which emphasized the benefits of not smoking, were most effective for smokers preoccupied with the difficulty of quitting. Loss-framed messages that emphasize the negative effects of smoking, however, appealed most to participants who thought they could quit whenever they wanted.

“These warnings are more effective than text-only warnings for grabbing people’s attention, generating an emotional and cognitive response,and potentially prompting behavior change,” he said.

Though the study focused on the general population and not specifically college students, Mays explained that his research would affect young people beginning to form habits such as smoking.

“Measures to help young smokers quit are key to reducing the risks associated with tobacco use later in life,” he said.

Despite efforts by researchers to enforce these new policies, students who smoke seemed skeptical that targeted messages would significantly change habits.

Clarissa Reichblum (COL ’17), a self-described social smoker, said that she did not think increased warnings on cigarette packages would discourage smokers from smoking

“Honestly nobody who smokes is unaware of the health consequences. I just don’t really care,” she said.

Salma Khamis (SFS ’17) agreed that messages on packages did not dissuade her from smoking.

“It’s not like I don’t know that cigarettes are bad for me, so I’m really not bothered by them,” she said. “I associate a lot of things with having a cigarette — after food, when I’m stressed or when I’m happy.”

Ruby Velasquez (COL ’17), however, said that the change to larger and more targeted pictorial messages displayed on cigarette packages in other countries could be more effective than the current text-based warnings.

“For American cigarette packages, the messages are small and understated so I don’t look at them, but for international cigarettes packages, I look at the warnings more because they have images on them and pictures are more effective,” she said.

Mays acknowledged the varying opinions on smoking but said that he hoped the study and future research from the Lombardi Center would change the future of smoking and people’s willingness to quit.

“This study will be helpful to inform decisions moving forward about what messages to use to optimize their public health impact,” he said.

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