This Can Kill? Cool!

A number of you may have wondered why labels, such as the “Smoking kills” one, on cigarettes packages do not deter everyone from smoking. Yes, these labels do not deter everyone (Hansen, Winzeler & Topolinski, 2009). One theory suggested that the negative effects of smoking and the positive effects of not smoking may seem so far away in time that they do not matter to some smokers (Bickel, Odum & Madden, 1999). This is a tendency called temporal discounting, where consequences further and further into future seem less and less significant (Critchfield & Kollins, 2001). Thus, some smokers do not mind those negative effects maybe until those negative effects actually come (Bickel et al., 1999). As a result, those messages have failed to create a need to stop smoking in some people before it is too late. Hence, some continue. However, Hansen et al., (2009) found that these labels could in fact encourage smoking. Good for cigarette companies’ sales! Though, the labels work on some people (Hansen et al., 2009). Bad for cigarette companies’ sales. The one label convinces all ideal did not happen there.

For various people, telling them that they could die from doing something can make that something worth doing (Hansen et al., 2009). Hansen et al, (2009) proposed that the risk of death from smoking can cause anxiety and it does not always stop there. The Terror Management Theory suggest that self-esteem can lessen anxiety as a form of emotional protection (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt & Schimel, 2004). Hence, those who gain self-esteem from smoking can transform this anxiety to fuel their self-esteems further, creating a positive “Woo! Look at me, I’m doing something dangerous yet I’m fine!” type mentality towards smoking (Hansen et al., 2009Pyszczynski et al., 2004).

On the other hand, Hansen et al. (2009) found that non-death-related messages, like “Smoking makes you unattractive”, can reduce the appeal of smoking more than death-related messages for people with smoking-dependent self-esteems. Nevertheless, neither types of the messages used in the study by Hansen et al. (2009) may be ideal. How obvious the persuasion attempt is can affect how much people accept it (Shadel, Fryer & Tharp-Taylor, 2010). Shadel et al. (2010) concluded that blatant persuasion in anti-smoking announcements could cause people to feel psychological reactance, which is not the usual aim of campaigns. This is because reactance is where a person not only rejects a message, but acts against it even if they would have preferred to follow the message (Miller, Lane, Deatrick, Young & Potts, 2007). Hence, if an anti-smoking message triggers reactance, the reader may feel more inclined to smoke even if they hate smoking. Humans can be motivated to keep or regain their freedom and they could act against their own logic and principles to exercise freedom (Miller et al., 2007). Thus, they gain more reason to continue or start smoking.

Some people are better off not reading those labels. So you may need to take care in creating public health campaign and laws.

Copyright © 2013 Thoughts for Creation



  1. Great topic with lots of research on it. It is always interesting to see how little twists in sentences can change the whole behaviour. But this makes me thinking of graphic images on packages (e.g. in Canada). I wonder how much difference those images can make on the behaviour of smokers? I would expect them to evoke more attention when lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema are actually being graphical.
    I just read that there was a mandate by the US government in August that wanted to place graphic images on cigarette packs, but it was ruled in favour of the tobacco companies. The tobacco industry argued that “the warnings would be cost-prohibitive and would dominate and damage the packaging and promotion of their brands. The legal question was whether the new labelling was purely factual and accurate in nature or was designed to discourage use of the products.” (
    The whole smoking awareness label campaign is pretty interesting. With such discrepancy about the written labels, do you think pictures might be an effective way to take care of creating public health campaigns?

  2. Absolutely agree with the previous comment – well done research! The most interesting point for me is that non-death-related messages are more effective that ‘dangerous’ ones. I think that alcohol and cigarettes campaigns are real tests for advertising agencies. They have to be careful, but still convincing. For non-smoking campaigns it is difficult to balance too. They are indented to make an impression, but sometimes seem to be offensive. So advertising in this particular sphere faces a big challenge and only the best professionals are able to manage it!

    • I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and interesting, and
      without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the
      head. The issue is an issue that too few folks are speaking intelligently about.

      I’m very happy that I found this during my hunt for something concerning this.

    • Thank you, I’ve recently been searching for info about this topic for
      ages and yours is the best I’ve found out till now. However,
      what about the bottom line? Are you positive about the

  3. It is a great topic which deserves thinking deeply. It is really surprising that so much research found the negative effect of anti-smoking messages on public health. In your article, self-esteem dependent on smoking has been mentioned to explain the reason for smoking. This makes me think of the psychological inversion, which may appear frequently among teenagers. If the anti-smoking messages can make people more likely to smoke, it will definitely encourage more teenagers to do it. Therefore, we have to find more reasonable or suitable ways to convey the harm of smoking on health. Anti-smoking advertisements are popular in TVs in many countries. Other forms, such as slogans also have been used. I have seen a kind of slogan on tarmacadam before, which made me be aware of the smoking’s harm immediately. It says, “Are you a smoker? This is the amount of tar in your lungs after two years”, and it is written on a square of tarmacadam. This can be a long-term topic for us to think about. How to make people realize the negative effect of cigarettes and abandon smoking themselves?

  4. A very interesting topic! Any attempt to limit the way in which tobacco brands can limit their harmful product is clearly a good thing in my opinion, as mentioned in my blog.

    However there may be other ways to go about this. it would be interesting to find out if simply making people feel they are part of the minority will affect smoking uptake? With a recent social conformity effect shown with tax returns for U.K. citizens. Sending a warning letter stating an individual will get a fine was found to be less effectual in HMRC receiving tax than sending a letter reminding them that over 95% of people fill in their tax returns on time.

    So if you constantly informed the smoker on their packaging that 80% of the U.K dont smoke, can you then have a social conformity effect?

    • I agree the influence of perceived norms should be considered in smoking interventions (Ashe, 1956) despite self-reports that some people choose to smoke because they feel being a non-smoker is too ordinary and they wish to be different (Plumridge, Fitzgerald & Abel, 2002). The wish to follow norms and the wish to be different appear contradict. Hence, it could be important to investigate which influence is more powerful or how other factors, for example personality, may mediate the degrees of influence. It is also worth considering norms, as self-report studies may not reveal how people really think (Gravetter & Forzano, 2009). Hence, mentioning the norms to de-market smoking may still be effective.


      Ashe, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70(9), 1-70. Retrieved from

      Gravetter, F. J., & Forzano, L. B. (2009). Research methods for the behavioral sciences (3rd ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

      Plumridge, E. W., Fitzgerald, L. J., & Abel, G. M., (2002). Performing coolness: Smoking refusal and adolescent identities. Health Education Research, 17, 167-179. Retrieved from

  5. psub06

    There used to be stop-smoking adverts on TV that showed the unattractive aspects of smoking (i.e a girl in a bar is approached by a man who initially is attracted to her, but when he leans closer to her to speak to her he smells the smoke on her hair and leaves!). More recently there have been numerous ads with children voices their concerns about their parents smoking. These I feel are probably more affective for putting the message across. One demonstrated the effect smoking has on others – a baby in the same room is passively smoking when others around them choose to smoke. The effect it has on other people I imagine is a more effective message than they effect it has on you as an individual. When it’s yourself you may accept risk, but when you’re putting others at risk, I wonder if that is more effective at changing behaviour.

  6. There has also been research that has shown interesting social effects on the cessation of smoking. Christakis and Fowler (2008) found that over the course of a longitudinal study, if people close to you stopped smoking, you were more likely to stop too. For example, if a spouse stopped, the other partner was 67% likely to stop too, with a sibling: 25%, a friend: 36% and co-workers: 34%. This suggests that within these social groups, the social norm of not smoking is being imposed upon smokers. This may have relevant implications for de-marketing strategies, in that if non-smoking is made the social norm, people may want to conform to this and quit.

  7. I definitely agree that the one message fits all approach is lacking when it comes to smoking. Personally I think if the government or whomever wishes to decrease smoking in the population want to intervene they need to take a step away from the health promotion tactic entirely. I know this is the main issue with smoking which is why people are against it but as a smoker myself I can tell you there is nothing you can put on a packet or in an advert that people who smoke don’t already know. There is not a smoker in the world that would be shocked to hear its bad for them! The best attempt so far I believe was the smoking ban from public areas as it targeted the social aspect of smoking, however studies showed that by 2011 there was no change in the 21% of the population in the UK who smoked. There was a drop in the North East of England of 8% though this was not enough to affect the overall percentage – Therefore I think an entirely new tactic is needed to approach smoking behaviour, maybe targeting the individual would be a better use of money than trying to make these generic messages speak to people who quite often don’t want to listen.

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