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Plain packaging of cigarettes encourages young smokers to heed health warnings

Press release issued: 8 August 2012

New research shows that plain cigarette packaging may help to draw the attention of some adolescent smokers to the health warnings on the package.  If so, this may in turn deter young smokers from continuing to smoke. The findings, led by researchers from the University of Bristol, is published online in the scientific journal Addiction.

New research shows that plain cigarette packaging may help to draw the attention of some adolescent smokers to the health warnings on the package.  If so, this may in turn deter young smokers from continuing to smoke. The findings, led by researchers from the University of Bristol, is published online in the scientific journal Addiction.

Researchers asked 87 teenage secondary school students from Bristol, UK to look at 20 images of cigarette packs on a computer screen for ten seconds each while a device tracked their eye movements.  Some packs were plain, carrying only the name of the brand in a plain font and a standard pictorial health warning.  The rest were the conventional and colourful packs of ten popular cigarette brands, which included the same health warnings.

Students who had never smoked paid attention to the health warnings on both plain and branded cigarette packets, while daily smokers tended to avoid looking at any health warnings at all.  But students who were occasional (non-daily) smokers, or had tried smoking at least once, paid more attention to the health warnings on the plain packs than to those on the branded packs. 

Compared with adults, adolescents are highly vulnerable to taking up smoking.  Research has established that pictorial health warnings can discourage young smokers and that adolescents who forego a cigarette because of a health warning have a lower intention to smoke. 

As a result of its plain-packaging legislation, the Australian Government is facing an international trade dispute involving several tobacco companies and tobacco-producing nations.  The results of this study will provide the Australian Government with further evidence in its favour, and something for other governments to consider as they contemplate plain-packaging legislation of their own.

Olivia Maynard, lead researcher from the University’s School of Experimental Psychology, said: “The use of eye tracking technology provides an invaluable tool in assessing the impact of health warnings on plain cigarette packaging. Although the findings clearly show that cigarette packs without attractive designs and imagery may be an effective method of increasing the prominence of health warnings among young non-established smokers, further research is needed to address why daily smokers fail to heed the health warnings on cigarette packets.”