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Scary images on cigarette packages do not deter everyone

11 February 2015

Scary images of blackened lungs or tumors on cigarette packets are not an effective deterrent for all smokers. That is the conclusion of Professor Arie Dijkstra on the basis of research published recently in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, a scientific journal edited by the American Psychological Association. He believes that, if the images are introduced, smokers should also have cheap and easy access to support in stopping smoking.

Prof. Arie Dijkstra, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Groningen, studied the effect of alarming images on smokers’ intentions to quit, as well as on their smoking behaviour. He asked half the sample of 118 smokers to apply stickers of the scary images to their cigarette packets for three weeks. The other half carried on using their normal cigarette packets with the current written warnings.

The results show that the alarming pictures worked for people who do not usually make a lot of excuses for carrying on smoking. They developed stronger intentions to quit and also smoked significantly less during the three weeks. Heavy smokers also reacted positively to the images and developed stronger intentions to quit. Previous research has shown that these intentions are a significant predictive factor in whether a smoker will indeed try to quit. In smokers who make lots of excuses and in lighter smokers, the images had no detectable effect. According to Dijkstra, there is a danger that especially smokers who make lots of excuses will discard to whole idea of quitting. To confirm these negative effects of scary images, more smokers will have to be studied for a longer time.

Dijkstra concludes that the unpleasant images can be effective, but not for everyone. It is also not entirely clear whether they actually make the situation worse for some people. ‘The best advice I can give on the basis of my research is that, if these alarming images are introduced, it is important that we also provide a solution. Smokers must have cheap and easy access to support with stopping smoking.’

Prof. Arie Dijkstra is professor of the Social Psychology of Health and Illness at the University of Groningen. He is specialized in the psychology of health behaviour and addiction.

Dijkstra, A., & Bos, C. (2015, January 26). The Effects of Repeated Exposure to Graphic Fear Appeals on Cigarette Packages: A Field Experiment. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

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Last modified:25 January 2016 4.42 p.m.
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