NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A small study in England found that non-smokers and light smokers paid more attention to health warnings on cigarette packs that lacked branding graphics than on packs that included brand logos.
According to the researchers, the results may support initiatives some countries are considering that would remove branded labels to accentuate health warnings on cigarette packs.
Smokers, however, seemed immune from the change in packaging, and viewed equally the health warning and the product information, regardless of whether it was with plain or branded labeling.
The researchers tracked the 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.
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.
On packs that used a plain 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, for instance.
Smokers, on the other hand, continued to split their views evenly between the two parts of the pack: about 13 times on the health warning and 14 times on the plain information.
Dr. Marcus Munafo, the lead researcher on the study and a professor at the University of Bristol, said that the results could reflect smokers’ familiarity with graphic health warnings.
In the United Kingdom, pictorial health warnings - such as pictures of lungs damaged by smoking - are required on all tobacco products.
“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 on plain packs -- in other words, ignore them,” Munafo wrote in an email to Reuters Health.
On the other hand, the results could mean that smokers are paying comparatively more attention to the plain information because they are not used to seeing that on cigarette packaging, said Dr. Jim Thrasher, a professor of public health at the University of South Carolina, who was not involved in this study.
“That doesn’t mean that, with time, the novelty of the plain pack wouldn’t wear off, and smokers might pay more attention to the warning labels. We just don’t know,” Thrasher told Reuters Health.
Non-smokers and light smokers might be more impacted by the extra attention they pay to health warnings on plain packs, the authors write in their study.
“Taken together with the existing literature,” they conclude, their findings make it “plausible” that plain packaging will increase the impact of health warnings in people who have yet to establish a smoking habit, and who are therefore potentially more open to being influenced.
The researchers did not measure the attitudes or behavior of the participants after the experiment, but they write 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 said.
Thrasher said it’s important to measure the impact of different labels on cigarette packs, especially at a time when governments are forcing changes.
“If we’re making a health label policy, we need to know more about the long-term effects of these policies,” he said.
Australia is slated to be the first country to require plain packaging on cigarettes.
In 2012, cigarettes sold in the United States will be required to carry pictorial health warnings, although branded labeling will still be on packaging.
Steve Callahan, a spokesman for Philip Morris’s parent company Altria, said that if plain packaging were to be proposed in the United States, it would raise constitutional concerns.
“It would restrict the rights of a company to communicate brand information to consumers,” Callahan told Reuters Health.
Callahan did not have a comment regarding the study, which is published in the journal Addiction.
The research was funded by the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the National Institute of Health Research in England.
SOURCE: bit.ly/fAkHYm Addiction, online March 14, 2011.