Background: Research on human emotion shows that pictures drive the activity of specialised brain networks affecting attitude and behaviour. Pictorial warnings on cigarette packages are considered one of the most effective ways to convey information on the health consequences of smoking. However, few studies have evaluated the effectiveness of warning labels to elicit avoidance of smoking.
Objectives: To investigate the impact of pictorial health warnings conveyed by the Brazilian tobacco control programme through a well-established psychometric tool designed for studies on emotion and behaviour.
Methods: Graphic Brazilian cigarette warnings labels were evaluated. They consisted of the two sets of warning pictures displayed in 2002–4 (n = 9) and 2004–8 (n = 10). Pleasant, unpleasant and neutral pictures selected from a standard catalogue were used as controls. Undergraduate students (n = 212, 18% smokers) evaluated the emotional content of each picture in two affective dimensions: hedonic valence and arousal. Participants were not provided with the sources of distinction between control and warning pictures.
Results: The judgements of hedonic content of the warning pictures ranged from neutral to very unpleasant. None was classified as highly arousing. Smokers judged warning pictures representing people smoking significantly more pleasant than pictures without smoking scenes, and significantly more so than non-smokers. No significant differences between smokers and non-smokers were found for warning pictures without these smoking scenes.
Conclusion: Previous studies have shown that the most threatening and arousing pictures prompt the greatest evidence of defensive activation. Emotional ratings of Brazilian warning pictures described them as unpleasant but moderately arousing. To intensify avoidance of the packages, future graphic warnings should therefore generate more arousal. The ratings for the Brazilian warning pictures indicated that, except for those depicting people smoking, judgements by smokers and non-smokers were similar, suggesting a potential applicability in both prevention and cessation. Smoking cues, however, should be avoided.
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