Cigarette health warnings and bogus buy-ology

Apologies to regular readers for my recent blog down-time. I’ve had a lot on my plate recently and so had a break from blogging. But I’m now back with some catching up to do (including responding to many of your thoughtful comments). There has been plenty to write about in the field of tobacco and health.

You may have recently seen a newspaper article (there have been many) stating that the new pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs in many countries (e.g. Canada) don’t work. These news items have been largely based on the work and publicity created by Martin Lindstrom, a marketing guru and author of “Buy-ology: truth and lies about why we buy.’

Now Martin Lindstrom is clearly a clever guy who knows a lot about marketing. But when it comes to interpreting studies of how people’s brains respond to images, I’m afraid he’s not so hot. Lindstrom got funding for some research that involved using modern brain scanning techniques to examine the effects of certain pictures on specific parts of the brain. Part of this research apparently involved showing pictures of cigarette packs (including the health warnings) to 32 people. He claims that these images stimulated activation of the same parts of the brain that “light up” (excuse the pun) when a smoker craves for a cigarette. He then suggests that this shows that pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs are a waste of time and may even stimulate the desire to smoke.

Even without knowing the details of the research (as it hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal) there are a few problems with the logic here. Here are a few to start with:

1. The research does not sound as if it directly compared the effects on the brain of viewing a standard cigarette pack (without large pictorial health warnings), with the effects of viewing packs with large pictorial health warnings. So without such a direct comparison the research says nothing about the effects of adding pictorial health warnings.

2. The idea that smokers may have cravings stimulated by viewing cigarette packs (with or without warnings) isn’t exactly new. Clinicians have long been advising smokers to throw away their packs and other smoking paraphernalia and avoid smoking cues. You really don’t need a brain scan to figure out that when a smoker hasn’t smoked for a while and you show them a cigarette pack they might want to smoke a cigarette!

3. People who buy cigarettes are going to be exposed to cigarette packs, and by the time they are close enough to one to see the health warning then it is quite likely that the health warning isn’t going to stop them smoking a cigarette from that particular pack. But that’s not the way the warnings are likely to work. By seeing a number of large, pictorial and emotionally evocative images that change regularly over a period of time…there is more likely to be a cumulative “drip, drip, drip” effect that contributes (along with many other factors) to the decision and act of finally quitting.

There is more one can say on this topic, but for now there is much stronger research evidence from a number of countries, all concluding that introducing larger pictorial health warnings increases smokers’ interest in quitting and makes a positive contribution to reducing the number of cigarettes being smoked.

Mr Lindstrom knws how to help companies to sell bottles of water for $60, and that requires the ability to get people to believe things without any evidence. He’s done a good job in marketing the idea that his unpublished brain scan study can give us deep insights into how to market things. But like the $60 bottle of water, there appears to be more hyperbole than substance behind his claim that pictorial health warnings are a waste of time. But I can think of one industry that may like his message…maybe even pay for it. If he was right, wouldn’t the tobacco industry support the idea of adding larger pictorial health warnings onto cigarette packs? So why does the tobacco industry oppose it? Maybe they have looked at the wider evidence on cigarette sales before and after the introduction of large pictorial health warnings around the world? Seems more reliable evidence to me than brain scans from 32 people.

For further information on pictorial health warnings, including a link to view the warnings from around the world, check out the link below. I’d be interested in your comments on the pictorial health warnings from around the world. Do they make you want to smoke?

Its time for pictorial warnings on cigarette packs. 6/18/07
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.