Graphic warning labels on plain cigarette packs: will they make a difference to adolescents?

Judith McCool, Lisa Webb, Linda D Cameron, Janet Hoek
Social Science & Medicine 2012, 74 (8): 1269-73
Graphic warning labels and plain cigarette packaging are two initiatives developed to increase quit behaviour among smokers. Although a little is known about how adolescents interpret graphic warning labels, very few studies have examined how plain cigarette packaging would affect adolescents' perceptions of cigarette smoking and smoking behaviour. We explored how teens interpret and respond to graphic warning labels and the plain packaging of cigarettes, to assess the potential these strategies may offer in deterring smoking initiation. Twelve focus group interviews with a sample of 80 14-16 year old students from a diverse range of schools in Auckland, New Zealand were undertaken between June and August 2009. Textual analysis revealed that graphic warning labels may influence adolescents by reiterating a negative image of smokers. Graphic warning on a plain cigarette pack increased the attention paid to graphic warning labels and the overall perceptions of harm caused by cigarette smoking, and reduced the social appeal of cigarette smoking. This research offers evidence on how adolescents are appraising and interpreting graphic warning labels, and explores how dominant appraisals may affect the role graphic warning labels play in preventing smoking. Not only would plain cigarette packaging enhance the salience and impact of graphic warning labels, but it would potentially bolster the overall message that cigarette smoking is harmful. In the context of a comprehensive tobacco control programme, graphic warning labels on plain cigarette packaging present an explicit message about the risks (to health and image) associated with cigarette smoking.

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