They’re graphic and often gruesome, but tobacco warning labels are also effective, says Geoffrey Fong, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and perhaps the world’s leading expert on the topic. Dr. Fong is the founder and principal investigator of the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project, which has conducted the majority of the studies worldwide looking at the effectiveness of cigarette warning labels.
The ITC project began its first, pioneering longitudinal survey in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia in 2002. The project now counts 70 researchers conducting surveys in 20 countries and just recently received renewed operating support of $7.2 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
The ITC project aims to survey individuals before major tobacco control policies are implemented (including the adoption of warning labels, but also such things as smoke-free laws and tax increases on tobacco products) and then follows those same individuals over time. “We can show you across many countries that in every case graphic warning labels significantly enhance the noticeability of warnings, encourage people to think about the health risks of smoking and increase the likelihood that they will forgo a cigarette,” which is the first step in quitting, says Dr. Fong.
Canada was the first country in the world to implement graphic warning labels, in December 2000. Those labels served as the model for packaging regulations adopted by the World Health Organization in 2003.
But warning labels can lose their effectiveness over time if they’re not revised or updated, which was the case in Canada, says Dr. Fong. He was concerned, therefore, when Health Canada announced in 2010 that it would delay implementing new, larger and more “emotive” warnings. He shared his concerns in testimony to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health this past December. Three weeks later the health minister announced the revised warnings would go ahead.
The U.S., meanwhile, will likely get its first graphic tobacco warnings in 2012, the first change in cigarette packaging regulations there in more than 25 years. Some U.S. lawmakers dismiss the effectiveness of such labels, to which Dr. Fong responds: “The ITC project has shown it’s worked in every country so far. So it’s a good bet it’s going to work there too.”