How graphic warnings on cigarette packets influence smokers' brains

Posted on February 24, 2016

Photo: flickr

Co-lead study author Darren Mays, PhD, an assistant professor of oncology at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and colleagues publish their findings in the journal Addictive Behaviors Reports.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by two to four times and raises the risk of lung cancer by around 25 times.

Statistics like these emphasize the need for strategies to reduce smoking rates, and one such strategy has been the introduction of graphic warning labels (GWLs) to cigarette packaging.

To date, GWLs on cigarette packaging have been implemented in more than 65 countries, spurred by increasing evidence that the warnings help smokers consider the health risks and may even help them quit the habit.

The team showed 19 current smokers aged 18-30 a series of images of either GWLs - consisting of a graphic and text - text-only warning labels or plain cigarette packaging for 4 seconds each.

The GWLs included an image of an open mouth with rotted teeth and a tumor on the lower lip, for example, alongside some text that said: "WARNING: cigarettes cause cancer." The images included some of those proposed by the FDA that warn of the smoking-related risks for stroke, heart attack, cancer and lung disease.

The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of each participant as they viewed the warnings, allowing them to analyze brain activity.

Additionally, the subjects were required to use a push-button control after viewing each image to state how much each one made them want to quit smoking, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 4 (a lot).

The team found that GWLs were much more likely to motivate participants to quit smoking than text-only warnings and plain packaging.

Furthermore, when the subjects viewed the GWLs, they demonstrated activity in certain areas of the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Co-lead study author Adam Green, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at Georgetown, explains that the amygdala responds to stimuli that are emotionally powerful, especially fear and disgust, which are emotions that often influence decision-making.

Category(s):Addictions, Health / Illness / Medical Issues, Other, Smoking Cessation

Source material from Georgetown University