Do Cigarette Warning Labels Drive Us To Smoke More?

Anne Mitchell Health Guide
  • An interesting book has been published that reports on study results which seem to contradict common sense. Smokers appear to be subconsciously motivated to smoke more when they see anti-smoking messages.

    Buy-ology - Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, the new book by ad-industry pundit Martin Lindstrom, reports the findings of a three-year, $7 million neuromarketing study. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electronencephalography (EEG) technologies, researchers studied 2,000 people from five countries in an attempt to unlock the triggers behind consumer behavior.

    The study’s goals included evaluating the effectiveness of product warning labels and product placement. A major finding was the extent to which consumers are driven more by subconscious motivations than conscious ones.

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    When people were asked if they thought the warning labels on cigarette packs worked, they almost all said “yes”. But when they were asked this question while their brain activity was being studied using fMRI technology, “craving spots” lit up indicating that the warning labels made the smokers want to smoke.

    In a separate study, researchers discovered that anti-smoking ads had the same effect on study participants. Despite what people said they thought about the effectiveness of anti-smoking ads and warnings, their brains showed the materials acted as craving triggers instead.

    These results are astounding. Those of us who have been gripped by the smoking addiction already know how irrational the urge to smoke can seem. No matter how much we say we want to quit, and how badly we really do want to quit, we find ourselves relapsing again and again. We feel helpless against our cravings.

    Perhaps those relapses have been because we have been inadvertently triggering our cravings by our exposure to anti-smoking materials. If this is true, this finding could revolutionize our stop-smoking programs.

    I know from personal experience that quitting smoking is not achieved by making a rational decision. We quit when it becomes an emotional imperative. We must feel the need to quit deep within the core of our being. We cannot talk ourselves into it and we cannot be easily persuaded by others. Warning labels won’t scare us and statistics won’t humble us.

    We tend to think bad things only happen to other people. I call it lottery thinking. We buy lottery tickets because we think we have a chance of winning despite the odds being against us by a million to one. Yet we smoke thinking we won’t be affected (or hoping we won’t) even though the odds are definitely against us.

    If our rational minds were in control of whether we smoked or not, almost nobody would smoke. But the nicotine addiction runs deep and our emotions become entangled in the chemical dependency. It’s really no wonder that a reminder of what smoking does to us also reminds us of what it does FOR us, thus triggering our cravings.

    Once we embrace the idea of freedom from smoking, we learn new ways of coping with our emotions and the stresses of everyday life. The craving triggers hold less power and our brains slowly let go. It takes time and it often takes repeated attempts, but one day we look back and realize we made it. And we know the struggle was worth it.


  • It will be interesting to see if the findings of these studies influence how we approach stop-smoking programs. In the meantime, we must do what we can to avoid triggering our cravings. Quitting smoking is the single most important thing we can do to improve our health and putting it off is not a rational option.

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    If you need help getting started, please check out this post: Preparing to Quit Smoking.

Published On: October 29, 2008