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July 19, 2017

Graphic warnings on tobacco save lives, and now cover almost half the world’s population

Among the many findings of the Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, released by the World Health Organization (WHO) this week, was the rapid increase in the use of graphic health warning labels on cigarette packages worldwide. Graphic warnings are now law in 78 countries, and cover 47% of the world’s population, up from just 44 countries in 2014. They are the most widely adopted MPOWER measure to combat tobacco use.

The large increase in the number of countries adopting graphic warnings in the last few years will save millions of lives. They are an effective and cost efficient way to reduce cigarette smoking. Once laws are in place, they cost governments very little to enforce, making them ideal for low-income nations seeking tobacco control measures. They have also shown their resiliency, standing up against tobacco industry legal challenges in countries such as Uruguay.

Graphic warnings are not only good policy from an economic point of view, but are also very effective in making people want to quit smoking, due to their emotional impact. A study in Addictive Behavior Reports found that graphic warnings were much more likely to motivate participants to quit smoking than text-only warnings or plain packaging alone. In the study, researchers conducted brain scans of participants while exposing them to graphic warnings. The researchers found strong responses in parts of the brain associated with fear and disgust – both are powerful emotions that strongly influence people’s decision-making.

While graphic warnings have proven to be effective, they can be made even more so when coupled with plain packaging laws. Plain packaging prohibits the use of tobacco company logos, colors, and other types of branding on cigarette packages. All packages are required to bare a standard, often unsettling, color, and brand and product names must all be written in a single font. These laws both negate the effects of branding and make cigarettes less attractive by bringing attention to graphic warnings.

Plain packaging laws have already been introduced in Australia, France, and the UK, with many other countries considering following in their footsteps. Australia’s plain packaging law also recently held up to legal challenges by the tobacco industry, emboldening other countries to follow its lead. In places where graphic warnings already exist, it is often not difficult to expand the existing laws to include plain packaging. And this is a very good prospect, since the combination of plain packaging and graphic warnings can be a powerful, weapon against tobacco company marketing in many countries.

Visit the WHO website to see the full WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic

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