The graphic warning labels on cigarette packages do not work, according to a University of Illinois study published online in the journal Communication Research. Many perceive these as a threat to their freedom so they become more prone to negative and resistant thoughts when they think they are being told what to do so.

“What we found is that most people don’t like these warning labels, whether they are smokers or non-smokers,” says lead author Nicole LaVoie. “It makes them angry, it makes them express negative thoughts about the packaging, that they’re being manipulated. Ultimately, it also makes them think that the source – the government in this case, mandating these labels – is being overly domineering, is being too much in their business.”

L. Brian Stauffer

L. Brian Stauffer

The researchers studied 435 undergraduates, between 18 and 25 years, with a median age of 20, 62.3 percent of whom are white and the rest as nonwhite or multiracial. More than 17 percent were smokers while 82.5 percent were non-smokers. Two-thirds were female and one-third male.

The team gave half of the smokers and non-smokers with a cigarette package that had an FDA-approved graphic warning label and the other half were given with a package that only had a text-only label. They measured their personality traits and their response to the package.

Other studies have shown that smoking decreased after graphic warning labels have been introduced in other countries but this may not have been necessarily caused by the labels because the implementation also coincided with tax increases and smoking bans. People could also use slip covers, which go over the cigarette package, so they could avoid the graphic labels.

“We always measure and look at the intended effects, like encouraging people to quit smoking, but sometimes we don’t remember to look at what else these messages are doing that we’re not thinking about, like causing reactance,” LaVoie adds.”Our goal is to think about what can we do, what messages can we construct, that are effective for the whole, but also target these groups that are the most in need of help.”