Susquehanna University researchers held an experimental auction with 404 adult smokers bidding on four different kinds of cigarette packages.
One package had a text-only warning about the health effects of smoking that covered 50% of one side of the pack, which meets current US policy. Another had a text-only message that covered the lower half of the front, back and one side of the pack.
The third package had a text warning with a photo depicting mouth cancer, and the fourth package featured the same text warning and graphic cancer photo - but in a plain pack with all brand colour and symbols removed.
"We found that the label with just the front text warning had little effect on consumers," study co-author and professor of economics Matthew Rousu said. "However, demand was significantly lower for packs with grotesque images, with the lowest demand associated with the plain, unbranded pack."
New anti-smoking labels on the way
Bids for the plain, unbranded packs with the graphic photo of mouth cancer were 17% lower than the bids for packages with the current US warning label. The study appears in the journal Health Policy.
New cigarette warning labels, including graphic images of lung and mouth cancer, are scheduled to be introduced by the Food and Drug Administration in September 2012.
"Results from our study suggest that the new health warnings with graphic pictures will reduce demand for cigarettes," Rousu said.
"Regulators should consider health warnings with graphic pictures, but also plain packaging policies for tobacco products," he added. "Colour and brand imagery can support false beliefs about reduced risks of some brands."
The American Cancer Society offers a guide to quitting smoking.
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