How Graphic Visual Health Warnings Help Young Smokers’ Thoughts of Quitting

An article appearing​ in the April 2014 issue of the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Marketing Research reports that graphic visual health warnings on cigarette packages aid adolescent smokers’ thoughts of quitting primarily through the emotion of fear, whereas for young adult smokers, the warnings impact thoughts of quitting primarily through negative health beliefs and fear.

These findings are important in understanding different pathways to quitting, as two-thirds of adolescent and young adult smokers become lifetime smokers, and one-half of those lifetime smokers will die from this habit. 

“Our results lend support for the graphic visual health warnings on cigarette packages to aid young smokers’ thoughts of quitting,” writes authors J. Craig Andrews, Richard Netemeyer, Jeremy Kees, and Scot Burton, “…but their effects are reduced for those who smoke the most.”

One lesson in evaluating the impact of such mass counter-marketing programs is that not everyone processes them in the same way. The authors find that, with greater smoking experience, the impact of young adult smokers’ health beliefs operates similarly to the role of fear for adolescent smokers in driving quit thoughts. However, the effect of fear appears stronger for adolescent smokers, who not only lack smoking experience, but also are more impulsive and prone to risk-taking - limiting their objective processing.

In general, exposure to the graphic warnings can help increase quitting intentions by providing an extra “push” to younger smokers’ efforts to quit. For young adults, a substantial weakening of the graphic warning effect over time is not present, suggesting that the images may “stay on the mind” of young adult smokers after exposure and each time they reach for a cigarette. Results also show that quit thoughts for those who smoke the most are affected the least by the graphic warnings, making it important to reach young people in early stages of smoking. For more experienced young adult smokers, negative health beliefs of smoking are an important gateway for thoughts of quitting. Yet, their higher smoking frequency still reduces the impact of the warnings on quit thoughts. To encourage objective processing of the warnings, it might be helpful if a more prominent solution were readily apparent to young adult smokers (e.g., 1-800-QUIT-NOW numbers or Quick Response codes) and in providing links to social media, websites, and public health agencies (e.g., CDC) in aiding smoking cessation. 

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