Emotional Cigarette Warning Labels Affect Smokers’ Brains and Behavior

A new study, led by An-Li Wang from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, suggests that using emotionally evocative images such as rotting teeth and a diseased lung is important in making cigarette warning labels more memorable and effective in conveying the risks of smoking.

The study is the first to report the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study smokers’ brain response to graphic warning labels. The researchers found that warnings with more powerful images produced greater activation in parts of the brain that register emotional memory and fear. The more emotional labels also proved more memorable and were associated with greater reduction in the urge to smoke than the less emotional labels.

The findings suggest “that emotional imagery in graphic warning labels is an integral factor in the labels’ memorability” and “contributes to their public health impact,” according to the authors of the study, which was published online in Tobacco Control.