Pictures Speak Louder Than Words In Anti-Smoking Campaigns

FDA-approved anti-smoking ad

In public health efforts to encourage Americans to quit smoking, graphic anti-smoking visuals could be more effective than written warnings about tobacco, particularly in reaching diverse groups of smokers. A new study suggests that FDA-approved images depicting the consequences of smoking — such as blackened lungs, cancers, and even death — had a more powerful impact on adult smokers than simply receiving written warnings cautioning against the habit.

Researchers from the Legacy Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health delivered anti-smoking materials to over 3,000 adult smokers, and the participants who received graphic images reported feeling more “upset, scared and motivated to quit” than those who received anti-tobacco material only in writing. Those results remained constant across racial and socioeconomic groups — a significant finding, researchers said, since low-income and non-white Americans tend to be much more likely to smoke than the general population.

“Interventions that have a positive impact on reducing smoking among the general population have often proven ineffective in reaching disadvantaged groups, worsening tobacco-related health disparities,” Jennifer Cantrell, the Assistant Director for Research and Evaluation at the Legacy Foundation, said in a statement. “It’s critical to examine the impact of tobacco policies such as warning labels across demographic groups.”

Cantrell pointed out that the graphical labels seemed to be “one of the few tobacco control policies that have the potential to reduce communication inequalities across groups.”

Although teen smoking rates dropped to record lows at the end of last year, about 20 percent of the general U.S. population still smokes. But those rates rise significantly for low-income Americans, people of color, and the LGBT community.

Tobacco-related diseases remain the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more than 400,000 lives each year. Nonetheless, austerity policies have led states to slash funding for their effective anti-smoking programs over the past decade.