Disturbing images on cigarette pack warning labels activate brain regions crucial in quitting smoking, a new study suggests.
“Regulators can and should use this research to craft more effective warning labels and messages to smokers that both deliver facts about the negative effects of smoking and trigger thoughts and actions that move smokers toward quitting,” said study senior author Raymond Niaura. He is director of science at the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the Truth Initiative in Washington, D.C.
“Tobacco is still the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., and the growing body of research showing the effectiveness of warning labels should energize policymaking,” Niaura said in a news release from Georgetown University Medical Center, in Washington, D.C.
For the study, the researchers conducted brain scans on 19 young adult smokers. During the scans, the smokers were shown non-graphic and graphic pictures used on cigarette pack warning labels. For example, one image included an open mouth with rotten teeth and a tumor on the lower lip. The images were accompanied by the text: “WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer.”
Seeing the graphic pictures triggered activity in areas of the brain called the amygdala and medial prefrontal region, the study showed. These areas are involved in emotion, decision-making and memory, the researchers said.
“The amygdala responds to emotionally powerful stimuli, especially fear and disgust. And experiences that have a strong emotional impact tend to impact our decision-making,” said study co-lead author Adama Green, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Georgetown University Medical Center and the Truth Initiative.
The study was published online recently in the journal Addictive Behaviors Reports.
“What we found in this study reinforces findings from previous research where scientists have asked participants to report how they think and feel in response to graphic warnings on cigarettes,” said co-lead author Darren Mays, an assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
This study should help researchers understand the biological factors underlying responses to such warnings. And it may help them learn how these warnings can work to motivate a change in behavior, Mays said.
The American Cancer Society offers a guide to quitting smoking.