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Graphic Labels Discourage Smoking in Young Adults

July 3, 2013

Graphic cigarette warning labels are better at discouraging smoking in young adults than text-only labels, according to research recently published by a UC Merced professor.

Health psychology Professor Linda Cameron had more than 300 people between 18 and 30 years old view the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s proposed graphic labels and the text-only labels. The participants then evaluated each label’s understandability and how much it discouraged them from wanting to smoke.

The results, published this month in Tobacco Control, showed the graphic labels — particularly the ones featuring diseased body parts, death or suffering — were the most effective in discouraging smoking. Labels with drawings (rather than photographs), metaphors or depictions of unpleasant smoking situations were less likely to deter smoking.

“Graphic warnings for cigarette packages have been adopted by many countries around the world,” Cameron said. “Our study contributes to a growing body of research indicating that these labels effectively discourage people from smoking. These findings, along with evidence regarding the types of graphic warnings that are most impactful, are critical for guiding policies on the use of these labels in the U.S. and in other countries.” 

Smoking remains the leading cause of death in the United States and in the rest of the developed world, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization. Cameron’s study adds new information about how the warning labels can discourage young, adult nonsmokers — a vulnerable group — from picking up the habit.

The research is an example of how UC Merced professors are studying important health problems that plague society and creating knowledge that can inform policy decisions at the national and international level.

The study’s participants looked at the 36 labels that had been proposed by the FDA in 2010. Eight of the nine images selected for use by the FDA reduced smoking motivations and enhanced fears about it.

The labels have not gone into use, following a successful lawsuit from tobacco companies arguing the labels infringe on their freedom of speech. The FDA is moving forward to develop new warning labels for cigarette packages, as required by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act signed into law in 2009. 

Cameron joined UC Merced in 2011 after serving as a professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She earned her Ph.D. in personality and social psychology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

In another recent paper, coauthored with Monash University Professor Marisa H. Loft and published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Cameron found that daytime workers with poor sleep habits could improve their slumber by visualizing a specific plan for getting a good night’s rest.

In a four-week period, the participants used a short imagery task each day in which they visualized the process of changing into comfortable clothes and relaxing before bed, the time they planned to go to bed, where they planned to sleep and the bedtime routine they follow to help them sleep. These participants exhibited greater improvements in sleep quality relative to participants who used other strategies such as guided relaxation.

The findings add more support to self-regulation theories of how people can consciously manage their health through specific decisions, and how repeatedly visualizing a successful plan can play a crucial role in instilling health habits.

In commentary published alongside the article, Rush University Professor Jamie A. Cvengros wrote that in the USA, nearly 70 percent of adults report sleeping less than the recommended eight hours per night, particularly during the work week, and a quarter of American adults admit to getting “less sleep than needed to function at work.”

“The Loft and Cameron article in this issue provides compelling data on the efficacy of an imagery-based intervention to improve sleep behaviors among working adults,” Cvengros said.