New research suggests smokers are paying more attention to picture health warnings on cigarette packets

With ‘stop smoking’ a New Year’s resolution for many, Huddersfield researchers look at the effectiveness of health warnings on cigarette packets. Laura Drysdale reports.

The message about the dangers of smoking is getting through more effectively with new-style cigarette packaging, research has suggested.

Regulations introduced in the UK in 2016 insist that health warnings, made up of text and pictures, must occupy 65 per cent of the front and back of cigarette and tobacco packaging.

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The names of the manufacturer and the brand must also now be printed in a low key standardised style, against a drab brown background.

Graphic: The new-style cigratte packages have health warnings made up of text and pictures

Previous studies indicated that before these new regulations, smokers tended to divert their attention away from text-based warnings, concentrating on the distinctive branding.

But researchers at the University of Huddersfield have used eye-tracking technology to demonstrate how the focus has now shifted with the redesigned packaging, suggesting smokers are less likely to turn a blind eye to health warnings.

According to guidance from the Government’s Department of Health, the new packaging rules aimed to help reduce the appeal of tobacco products, prevent misleading statements regarding the benefits of them, increase the salience of health warnings and reduce smoking rates.

A team from the University’s Department of Psychology, made up of lecturers Dr Chris Retzler, Dr Jenny Retzler and PhD researcher Nazanin Shiraj, devised a method to appraise the success of the new packs in persuading smokers to take in and understand the health warnings.

Forty-seven heavy and light smokers – aged between 19 and 58 – were recruited to take part in the research.

Participants were each shown images of pre-regulation and post-regulation cigarette packets on a computer, while an eye-tracker recorded which parts of the packs they were looking at.

The findings appear in a journal article and suggest that the new design regulations are having the intended effect.

“Eye movement analysis revealed that for pre-regulation packs, smokers fixated more on the branding than the warnings,” the researchers state.

“This pattern was reversed for the post-regulation packs, suggesting that the recent regulations have been effective in reducing attention to brands and increasing attention to warnings.”

This means that the warnings are now “the most salient part of the post-regulation cigarette packs”.

It had been shown in earlier studies that heavier smokers tended to ignore the health warnings on pre-regulation packs.

“They’d smoked for so many years that they just wanted to ignore the outcome,” said Dr Retzler. “But we didn’t find any effect of that with the new packs. We looked at whether attention to either the branding or the health warning varied as a function of how much they smoked, and there was no relation, which is good news for these changes.”

The data was collected in the year following the legislative changes, so prior exposure to the post-regulation packs was likely to have been low and the new warnings relatively novel.

“The added benefit of novelty has been recognised in the EU Tobacco Products directive (European Commission, 2015), which requires the warnings on cigarette packs to be rotated each year in order to combat possible reductions in effectiveness due to familiarity,” the study states.

“However, longitudinal research is required to fully understand how the duration and frequency of exposure to warnings affects their salience.”

It adds: “Since the aim of the post-regulation packs is to reduce smoking, the next step in this area of research will be to see if these changes in attention result in changes in smoking behaviour or attitudes.”