Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Effectiveness of Cigarette Warning Label Threats on Nonsmoking Adolescents

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Effectiveness of Cigarette Warning Label Threats on Nonsmoking Adolescents

Article excerpt

This experiment investigated three levels of threat in cigarette warning labels: no warning/text warning only/text + graphic warning. Teenagers in Canada and the US were exposed to one of these labels in a web-surfing environment. Participants surfed a website sponsored by a familiar cigarette brand or an unfamiliar cigarette brand. After surfing, three dependent measures were assessed: brand attitude, website attitude, and smoking intent. Results indicated that the graphic label was the most effective for Canadian participants, leading to negative attitudes and lower smoking intentions, but the graphic label was least effective at lowering smoking intentions for US participants.


Despite the efforts of many health organizations in the United States and Canada, smoking among adolescents continues to be a major health problem in both countries that has consequences for future smoking behavior. For example, in the US, 90% of adult smokers began smoking before the age of 21 (American Lung Association 2008) and in Canada, 85% of adult smokers began smoking before the age of 19 (Health Canada 2008). In the US, 20% of seniors in high school, 12% of 10th graders, and almost 6% of 8th graders smoke daily (American Lung Association 2008). In Canada, 20% of teenagers aged 15-19 become adult smokers (Health Canada 2004). These statistics emphasize the importance of messages, including cigarette warning labels, targeted in part at nonsmoking adolescents in an effort to reduce the numbers of those who pick up the habit.

The US and Canada have taken different approaches to the types of warning labels mandated for cigarette packaging. In the US, warning labels are textual messages with no visuals. In Canada, since 2001, warning labels include graphic images that accompany the text. These warning labels, which include strong threats, have been shown to be effective among adults (Hammond et al. 2003). However, the impact of such labels on adolescents has not been fully investigated.

Much research has been conducted on responses to threats in cigarette advertising and warning label domains, often with contradictory findings. For example, Smith and Stutts (2006) found that antismoking advertisements targeted at adolescent nonsmokers reduced the prevalence of smoking. However, Wolburg (2006) found boomerang effects. Part of the confusion may be caused by a tendency in past studies to equate the degree of the threat contained in the message with the degree of fear experienced by the target (Rotfeld 1988). Given the difference between the US and Canadian warning label system, and the lack of research on nonsmoking adolescents' responses to threats contained in the differing labels, the purpose of the experiment reported here is simply to determine which approach leads to the most positive outcomes.

Very little research has investigated the effectiveness of threats in warning labels (for exceptions, see Hammond et al. 2003; Sabbane et al. 2008). Warning labels can elicit strong reactions. In Europe during the 1990s, for example, smokers placed stickers over warning labels that read "Tomorrow, you could get hit by a bus" (Bhatti 2004). Since nonsmoking adolescents are just as likely, if not more so, to be confronted with warning labels as ad campaigns during a smoking decision scenario, the effects of threats used in warning labels is an important area of study. Given the contradictory results reported above, and the fact that the impact of cigarette warning labels on attitudes and behavioral intentions is not fully understood, the purpose of this experiment was to investigate whether the Canadian warning label approach has positive consequences among Canadian adolescents (in terms of reducing their intentions to smoke) and, furthermore, to investigate what the effects might be of this approach on US adolescents.

Due to previous results obtained in past research, however, we felt it was necessary to pit two competing hypotheses against one another, to see which pattern might emerge from the data. …

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