Plain cigarette packing may help kick the butt

Plain cigarette packing may help kick the butt

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 colours, 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 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, 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 behaviour 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 behaviour, but if you do it might,” Munafo wrote.