Teen smokers 'heed health warnings' on plain cigarette packs

In collaboration with the Press Association

Teenagers who occasionally smoke are more likely to pay attention to health warnings on cigarette packets that have been stripped of branding, according to a small UK study.

Researchers at the University of Bristol, writing in the journal Addiction, say that adolescent smokers are more likely to pay attention to the health warnings on cigarette packages if distracting logos, fonts and colours are removed.

Their findings are the result of a study in which 87 teenage students from secondary schools in Bristol were shown 20 images of cigarette packs. Each image was displayed on a computer screen for 10 seconds while a device tracked the subject's eye movements.

The images showed a mixture of conventional and colourful popular cigarette brands, and plain packs with the name of the brand in a plain font. All of the packs carried a standard pictorial health warning.

Students who smoked daily tended to avoid looking at any health warnings at all, but teenagers who occasionally smoked paid more attention to the health warnings on the plain packs than those on the branded packs.

Students who had never smoked paid attention to the health warnings on both types of pack.

Previous research has already shown that pictorial health warnings can discourage young smokers, and more than 75,000 people have so far signed up to support Cancer Research UK's 'The answer is plain' campaign, which is calling on the Government to pass legislation that will require all tobacco products to be sold in plain, standardised packaging.

The Department of Health public consultation on plain packaging closes this Friday.

Lead researcher Olivia Maynard commented: "The use of eye tracking technology provides an invaluable tool in assessing the impact of health warnings on plain cigarette packaging."

She said the findings show that cigarette packs without attractive designs and imagery could be an effective way of increasing the prominence of health warnings among young casual smokers, but added that research is needed to address why daily smokers take less notice of the health warnings on cigarette packets.

Jean King, director of tobacco control at Cancer Research UK, said: "This is yet further evidence of the impact of cigarette packaging on how young people think about tobacco. Tobacco packaging clearly plays a marketing role and it's interesting to see how the packaging can distract from health messages.

"The scale of the health problems caused by tobacco is devastating, with more than a quarter of all cancer deaths caused by smoking. Removing the glitzy and distracting designs will help enhance the effect of warnings, reduce the appeal of cigarettes and give millions of young people one less reason to start smoking. With the government consultation on the future of tobacco packaging about to close, we urge the Department of Health to move as swiftly as possible to end the packet racket and put tobacco in plain packs."

Copyright Press Association 2012

References

  • Maynard, O.M., Munafò, M.R. & Leonards, U. (2012). Visual Attention to Health Warnings on Plain Tobacco Packaging in Adolescent Smokers and Non-Smokers, Addiction, n/a. DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2012.04028.x