Gruesome photos on cigarette boxes can propel anti-smoking campaigns

Warning messages on cigarette packs are most effective when diseased body parts and testimonials are pictured.

At least 120 countries around the world require pictorial warning labels on cigarette packages—for example gangrene feet or a dead body—but the United States is notably missing from the list. Despite a 2009 congressional act instructing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement pictorial warning labels, American cigarette packs still contain text-only warning labels. A new court order issued in September says the FDA must speed up its timeline for the implementation of pictorial warning labels.

closeup of frozen hand holding lit cigarette

A new study from the Annenberg School for Communication aims to contribute valuable research toward this end. Researchers analyzed more than 300 pictorial warning labels to determine which features are most effective at getting smokers to quit. They found that testimonial frameworks and images of diseased body parts were the most effective individual features.

“Humans act in response to our emotions,” says doctoral candidate Jazmyne Sutton, lead author on the study. “When we feel a negative emotion—fear, disgust, etc.—we want to avoid the source of that emotion.”

It makes sense, then, that images of diseased body parts and smoking horror stories told by real people would be most influential in getting smokers to stop smoking. No one wants to end up as the testimonial on a cigarette pack.

Read more at the Annenberg School for Communication.