Cigarette Warnings: Government Approach is Well Intended But Won’t Change Behavior

Several weeks ago Secretary LaHood unveiled with considerable fanfare, a new attack on smoking where manufacturers will be required to display on the top half of the pack of cigarettes larger, more graphic warnings of the dangerous effects of smoking It’s a good bet that Secretary LaHood hasn’t read Bringing Out the Best in People.  The third chapter is titled, “Louder, Longer, Meaner.”  It refers to the situation where we don’t get the response we want after the first request so the next time we ask we get louder, yell longer and/or get meaner. 

From a behavioral perspective, increasing the size of the warning tells us that the previous warnings were ineffective and that the solution to the problem is not to “do the same thing harder” but to focus on the consequences of smoking -- not its antecedents. Most smokers, even those who try cigarettes for the first time, are well aware of the negative consequences of smoking.  They know of its relationship to cancer, lung disease and heart disease. 

Telling smokers more often only makes them immune to the warnings.  After a while they won’t even notice them. Such warnings may even have the perverse effect of actually increasing smoking since smoking reduces stress and tension.

  The sight of dead bodies, cancer and diseased lungs may well increase stress levels causing the smoker to reach for his/her pack in order to calm down.  It probably won’t have much effect on younger smokers either as the graphic warnings may actually be a source of more fun and social reinforcement from peers.  (Think of candy in the shape of worms and insects!)  Smoking in the face of such apparent danger may certainly garner social reinforcement for those teenagers prone to pick up the habit.

I wonder who came up with this campaign anyway.  Whoever it is isn’t aware of all the research that has gone on in behavior analysis for the last 50 years on stimulus and consequence control of behavior.  Maybe the behavioral research should be printed in large type. 

Maybe that would get their attention.  No, that would be as much of a waste of government money and resources as this well-intended but futile initiative. If you want to discourage cigarette smoking, a more viable approach would be to focus on children and friends who are able to apply immediate consequences to the smoker’s behavior.  Slogans like, “Friends don’t let friends smoke – it’s a killer” or “Tell your daddy that his smoking is harmful to your health” will be more effective than the current campaign.  It takes behavioral consequences to change behavior.  Any program to change behavior that doesn’t include them is doomed to fail and wastes the time and money of all involved.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.