Plain cigarette packaging highlights warnings: study

TOKYO Mon Apr 11, 2011 9:22am EDT

A combination photo shows illustrations obtained by Reuters of some of the proposed models of cigarettes packs April 7, 2011. Australia's government has unveiled plans for some of the world's toughest anti-smoking laws, saying it would force big tobacco companies to use plain green packaging for cigarettes despite the threat of industry legal action. REUTERS/Australian Government/Handout

A combination photo shows illustrations obtained by Reuters of some of the proposed models of cigarettes packs April 7, 2011. Australia's government has unveiled plans for some of the world's toughest anti-smoking laws, saying it would force big tobacco companies to use plain green packaging for cigarettes despite the threat of industry legal action.

Credit: Reuters/Australian Government/Handout

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Light smokers and non-smokers pay more attention to health warnings on cigarette packs that lack branding graphics, supporting initiatives being considered by some nations to draw more attention to the warnings, a British study said.

But smokers were immune to the change in packaging, viewing equally the health warning and the product information, regardless of whether it was with plain or branded labeling.

"Repeated exposure to health warnings on cigarette packs might mean that daily smokers may be able to over-ride the automatic tendency to focus more on these (warnings) on plain packs -- in other words, ignore them," said Marcus Munafo, a professor at the University of Bristol and lead researcher on the small study, published in "Addiction."

Australia is set to be the first country to require plain packaging on cigarettes and from 2012 cigarettes sold in the United States will be required to carry pictorial warnings.

Researchers tracked eye movements of 43 people as they looked at cigarette packs that had either branded information or plain packaging, each paired with pictorial health warnings -- such as those of lungs damaged by smoking.

When looking at branded cigarette packs, which included colors, graphics and styled text, non-smokers, light smokers and smokers split their gaze equally between the brand part of the pack and the health warning.

But on packs that used a plan black font to say only the name of the brand and "20 cigarettes," non-smokers and light smokers looked at the health warning more frequently.

Non-smokers glanced 16 times at the health warning compared to 12 times at the product information, while smokers kept splitting their views evenly between the two parts of the pack.

"Taken together with the existing literature," Munafo and his fellow authors wrote, the findings make it "plausible" that plain packaging will increase the impact of health warnings in people who haven't established a smoking habit and are potentially more open to being influenced.

The researchers didn't measure the attitudes or behavior of the participants after the experiment, but wrote that perhaps the longer time spent viewing health warnings could potentially deter non-smokers and infrequent smokers from lighting up.

"In other words, if you don't look at a health warning it won't influence your behavior, but if you do it might," Munafo wrote.

(Reporting by Kerry Grens at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)

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