Gruesome pictures on cigarette warning labels could deter teen smoking

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Graphic images on cigarette packs may be doing their jobs.

A new study shows the visuals were more likely to discourage teens from smoking than when warnings were text-only. In 2011, three years after the images were added alongside warning text on cigarette packs, researchers found about 32 percent of English teens exposed to the pictures said they were more likely to think twice before picking up the bad habit, up from 26 percent in 2008. Surveys including more than 2,700 teens ages 11 to 16 were conducted first in 2008 prior to the images debut, and again in 2011.

The warnings did little, however, to stop teens who were already regular smokers, researchers from the University of Stirling in Stirlingshire, England, found. Disturbingly, between 2008 and 2011, the warnings became less noticeable, if not invisible, to regular teen smokers who were surveyed.

The gruesome images often depict tooth decay and lung disease in an effort to deter youth from smoking. Previous research has shown them to be effective at helping addicted smokers to consider quitting.

In the United States, the issue over printing the grotesque images halted back in March of 2013, after an appeals court overturned the decision. Previously, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the FDA s ability to regulate tobacco products, which included the labeling requirements.

Associate Director of Public Health Ariel Savransky finds the data encouraging. "Any effort that succeeds in deterring adolescents from smoking real cigarettes is a step in the right direction. But it seems that the focus needs to be in helping those already addicted to cigarettes quit, as graphic images and warning labels don't seem to make a difference."

The study was limited by a lack of causal association due to the study design, absent data on between-wave statistical differences, and potential effects of parents who were present at some interviews.