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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

UNC: Pictures on Cigarette Warning Labels Can Help Smokers Kick the Habit Despite Lack of Effect on Risk Beliefs

Pictures on cigarette warning labels increase the likelihood that smokers will quit, but do not necessarily change belief in the risk of harm. This is according to a new study co-led by Dr. Noel Brewer, professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, and Dr. Seth Noar, professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Published in Human Communication Research, Brewer and colleagues, including Gillings School Associate Professor of Health Behavior Dr. Marissa Hall, performed a meta-analysis on published studies measuring the types of effects pictorial warnings had on risk appraisals. Risk appraisals are the collective means through which people evaluate the chances of a future event happening, and they are divided into two categories: warning reactions and risk beliefs.

Warning reactions are immediate responses, typically involving negative feelings provoked by viewing a warning and thinking about its content. By contrast, risk beliefs involve a greater degree of judgment about the perceived likelihood of harm, severity of harm and individual feelings of vulnerability.

The team reviewed 39 articles, a majority of which were published within the last five years. Brewer and his team found that including a pictorial warning on cigarette labels had a significant impact on warning reactions. Viewers of pictorial warning labels experienced immediate emotional responses that included fear, sadness and disgust. They were also more likely to think about the health risks of smoking. But while these responses have proven effective in motivating smokers to quit, pictorial warnings ultimately did not change viewer beliefs about the likelihood or severity of negative health consequences.

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