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New cigarette health warning regulations not being followed

Trees flowering on campus

Monday 28 September 2009 9:26am

The regulations on health warning images on cigarette packets are not being appropriately followed by tobacco companies. That's the conclusion of latest research from the University of Otago, Wellington which involved a study of cigarette pack warnings after these became mandatory in August 2008.

The law requires that tobacco companies distribute evenly the different graphic health warnings over all cigarette packs. This is to ensure smokers are informed of the risks, to stimulate quitting, and to discourage young people from smoking.

However, the research on purchased cigarette packs and over 1200 discarded cigarette packs shows that the regulations are not being appropriately followed. The most offensive health warning graphics appear to be printed on packs less frequently than less disturbing images.

"The results suggest that tobacco companies are trying to reduce the impact of graphic health warnings by limiting the number of the most disturbing images," says one of the authors and University of Otago Professor of Marketing, Janet Hoek.

"This is of concern as it undercuts the law and public health policy, which aims to reduce the serious health impact of smoking and, in particular, the 5000 deaths a year in New Zealand that are directly attributable to smoking."

The study involved analysing purchased cigarette packs, and reviewing 1208 discarded packs found littering town and city streets. The likely impact of the graphic warnings on smokers was judged according to different criteria and tested against in depth interviews with retailers.

Professor Hoek says, "the most disturbing images were those found least frequently in our analyses. These images included graphics of smokers' external body parts, such as a diseased mouth or eye, or gangrenous toes."

"In contrast the least disturbing image, a body with a toe-tag, dominated both samples. This image also appears more often on packs sold by all three of the largest tobacco companies in New Zealand."

Tobacco companies have made it clear they dislike the new regulations on graphic health warnings, and these findings suggest they may be trying to minimise the impact of the new law. The researchers argue that tobacco companies should be required to submit information on print runs of all health warnings and be subject to regular audits.

"The tobacco industry's apparent reluctance to comply with new regulations encouraging smokers to quit, strengthens arguments in favour of restructuring the tobacco market so that a government agency controls all aspects of cigarette pack content and design according to this study," says Professor Hoek.

The research has been recently published in the international journal, Tobacco Induced Diseases. The study was funded by the Health Research Council as part of the International Tobacco Control Project

For further information contact

Dr Janet Hoek
Department of Marketing
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 7692

A full copy of the journal article is available free online:

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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