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Graphic images on packs may not scare smokers away, study says

In many cases, the images made people feel like their freedoms were being infringed on, and in some cases encouraged people's smoking habit.
By Stephen Feller   |   Feb. 23, 2016 at 3:49 PM

CHAMPAIGN, Ill., Feb. 23 (UPI) -- While smokers and non-smokers agree in their disdain for graphic images on packs of cigarettes, smokers say the pictures still won't stop them from lighting up.

Researchers at the University of Illinois found the images made people feel like their freedoms were being infringed on, and in some cases encouraged people's smoking habit.

Large warnings, images of diseased body parts, and pictures of people dying from smoking-related diseases have decreased smoking rates in countries where they've been added to cigarette wrappers. Many regulations in other countries were coupled with new taxes or restrictions, which researchers note may also have caused smoking to decrease.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved larger, more graphic warnings for cigarettes in 2012 but they have not been used because of lawsuits to prevent the government requirement from going into effect.

"We always measure and look at the intended effects, like encouraging people to quit smoking, but sometimes we don't remember to look at what else these messages are doing that we're not thinking about, like causing reactance," Nicole LaVoie, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, said in a press release. "Our goal is to think about what can we do, what messages can we construct, that are effective for the whole, but also target these groups that are the most in need of help."

For the study, published in the journal Communication Research, the researchers recruited 435 undergraduate college students between the age of 18 and 25, 17.5 percent of whom were current smokers.

Half the smokers and half the non-smokers were given packs of cigarettes that either had one of seven graphic images on them or only the text-based packaging generally in use, and asked to fill out a questionnaire about their personality and reaction to the package.

The researchers report most participants had a negative reaction to the graphic images. Both smokers and nonsmokers said the packaging bothered them as an affront to their freedom of choice -- as though the government was trying to be "too much in their business" and manipulate them.

This mindset, LaVoie said, was expressed most strongly by people measuring high in psychological reluctance, a personality trait making them more prone to resist ideas when they think they're being told what to do. Smokers, as a general group, are often have personalities measured higher in this trait.

"If these individuals see things as freedom threats, they are going to be more attracted to perform the threatened behavior," LaVoie said, "we might actually be doing harm to a group that might need the most help if they're battling an addiction to smoking."

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