Do Graphic Cigarette Warning Labels Work?

Discarded cigarette pack lying on groundGraphic cigarette warning labels, which show the visible health consequences of smoking, may not help smokers quit smoking, according to a University of Illinois study published in Communication Research.

The health consequences of smoking—which include lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, tooth decay, and emphysema—are well documented. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16.8% of Americans were smokers in 2014. Nearly half (42.7%) report attempting to quit in the past year, and 68.9% say they want to stop smoking.

Do Graphic Cigarette Labels Undermine Quit-Smoking Campaigns?

A range of graphic images have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as warnings on cigarette packages. A 2011 lawsuit alleging the labels undermined free speech temporarily halted them, but in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this claim. Since then, there has been little movement on the controversial warnings.

To assess how the warnings affect smokers, researchers recruited 435 undergraduate students ages 18-25, with a median age of 20. Two thirds of the group were female, and 17.5% were smokers. The majority (62.5%) identified as white. Each participant received a pack of a popular brand of cigarettes. Half of the packages displayed one of seven graphic warning labels, with the other half displaying only text labels.

Recipients of the packages with graphic images were more likely to express negative feelings about the images or to think they were being manipulated. This group also believed the government was intruding into their lives. Participants who measured high in psychological reactivity—a personality trait associated with resistance to being controlled—expressed the strongest feelings. According to the researchers, smokers tend to display higher levels of this trait, suggesting they are more likely to harshly react to the warning labels.

Smokers may see the labels as an affront to their personal freedom, the researchers suggest, increasing their desire to smoke. In countries where the labels are already in use, some smokers have responded by placing their cigarettes in sleeves that conceal the labels.


  1. Current cigarette smoking among adults in the United States. (2015, December 8). Retrieved from
  2. Fast facts. (2015, December 11). Retrieved from
  3. Graphic images may not scare smokers off cigarettes, says study. (2016, February 23). Retrieved from
  4. Lavoie, N. R., Quick, B. L., Riles, J. M., & Lambert, N. J. (2015). Are graphic cigarette warning labels an effective message strategy? A test of psychological reactance theory and source appraisal. Communication Research. doi:10.1177/0093650215609669
  5. Morran, C. (2015, February 18). Will the FDA ever get around to new warning labels for cigarettes? Retrieved from

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  • Lydia


    February 24th, 2016 at 11:20 AM

    This is such a tough one. I don’t think that for me as a former smoker that this would have had any impact on me as an adult. I was going to do what I wanted to do until I got tired of the money spent on the habit and I was ready to make a change. When I got ready to do it then I stopped, it was nothing to do with the warnings and stuff.

    Maybe for younger smokers it could have more of an effect but I think that there is usually so much peer pressure involved then it could be hard to target that age group as well.

  • frank


    February 25th, 2016 at 2:16 PM

    tHe way I see it is that there is always going to be something out there that will eventually get you, so I want it to at least be something that I enjoy. For me that is smoking

  • Jayne


    February 26th, 2016 at 1:12 PM

    How about those commercials where the people have had to have their vocal chords cut and all? Those are kind of scary, and I think they could make a real impact especially on teen and younger viewers.

  • Laurel


    February 27th, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    There have been variants of this throughout many years now and I do think that we are seeing that the numbers are decreasing. Do I think that we are ever going to see a day when there is no smoking at all? No because for too many people the habit is just too real. So the best that we can hope for is to keep as many people as possible from turning into new smokers and advancing the research in the health areas that continually plague smokers and their families.

  • smoking hot

    smoking hot

    February 28th, 2016 at 3:23 PM

    What happened to me being free to make my own decisions without someone always trying to tell me or show me that what I am doing is wrong? My life, my choices, and my business!

  • Rodger


    February 29th, 2016 at 3:22 PM

    I am a grown man and I think that I know what I want to do and I don’t feel like there has to be someone out there looking over my shoulder to protect me form myself. I understand that there is danger in pretty much anything that we do and I know wat I willing to risk and what I am not.

  • Xero


    May 16th, 2019 at 2:34 AM

    I was actually a bit let down they didn’t make the graphic labels, I was going to start a collection XD I mean seriously, you get a grossout pic each time you get a new pack, so it would basically be like modern day garbage pail kids cards n.n Would probably have gotten me to smoke a bit more too :P

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