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Brain study shows cigarette warning labels need powerful images to be effective

A study of smokers’ brain activity has found that graphic anti-smoking warning labels that produce a strong emotional response are effective at deterring the urge to smoke, according to researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.


The study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Addiction Biology and now available online, provides experimental biological support for the use of emotionally powerful graphic warning labels on cigarette packs as a way to deter smoking. It shows that the impact of smoking “cues” that grab the attention of a smoker’s brain – such as the image of a lit cigarette – can be significantly reduced when smokers are first shown a strong, graphic anti-smoking warning.


The study is the first to use electroencephalography, or EEG, to evaluate the impact of cigarette warning labels on smoking-related thoughts and behaviors. It finds “the first electrophysiological evidence of the superiority of graphic warning labels with strong emotional content in reducing brain and behavioral correlates of smoking addiction,” the researchers said.


“This study suggests that presenting emotionally powerful images depicting the risks of smoking can reduce the brain activity that underlies an urge to smoke,” said psychiatrist Daniel Langleben, a study co-author, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, and Distinguished Research Fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC). “This study is a great example of how advanced medical research methods can help address a pressing question in tobacco control policy.”


The findings come amid a public and legal debate over graphic warning labels using text and images on cigarette packs. The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act mandated the expanded warnings. But the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal to include strongly evocative images on cigarette packs was overturned in 2012 by a federal appeals court. The court ruled that the labels infringed on the tobacco companies’ rights to commercial free speech, and that there was insufficient evidence proving that these emotional images would actually help curtail smoking.


“When a smoker sees a cigarette, there is increased brain activity reflecting the motivational appeal of smoking,” said An-Li Wang, the study’s lead author and an APPC neuroscience researcher. “Cigarette warnings are largely ineffective in reducing that effect if they do not carry enough emotional impact.”


For the complete news release, click here. For the study, click here.