• 7/4/2008
  • Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
  • Sarah Schmidt
  • Canada.com

Graphic health warnings on cigarette packages are failing to move the majority of smokers to quit, a new government survey has found.

Over the last five years, the percentage of smokers who say the warnings are ineffective at getting them to try to kick the habit has increased, according to the newly released Health Canada poll.

More than half – 57 per cent – say they are unmoved by these graphic warnings, up five points from five years earlier. Among potential quitters – smokers who are seriously thinking of quitting – the percentage who characterize the campaign as not very effective or not at all effective in getting them to try to quit has also increased in this period, to 43 per cent from 40 per cent.

Only 14 per cent of smokers and 20 per cent of potential quitters said the health warnings are very effective at getting them to try to quit smoking, also down from five years ago, when 18 per cent of smokers and 25 per cent of potential quitters described the campaign in these terms.

Health Canada commissions the annual Environics poll to track the effectiveness of health warning messages on cigarette packages.

In 2001, Canada became the first country in the world to require tobacco companies to put photos of cancerous lungs, diseased hearts and mouth cancer among others on cigarette packages with text messages such as “Cigarettes Cause Lung Cancer” and “Cigarettes Cause Strokes.” The photos and text must cover half of the package, both front and back.

But the campaign hasn’t been updated in seven years, and the Canadian Cancer Society says these new survey results show the warnings are “becoming a bit stale,” according to senior policy analyst Rob Cunningham.

“That’s an indication of the importance of Health Canada refreshing the content of the messages. You’re not going to see a major consumer product company leave their television ads unchanged for seven years.”

The most recent poll, conducted last November, shows near universal recollection among respondents of seeing health warning messages on cigarette packages, with 93 per cent of smokers reporting having seen warnings on their main brand of cigarettes.

But the poll also found that many smokers are finding ways to avoid looking at the images of oral cancer, teeth decay and lung disease accompanied by tag lines about cancer, premature death and the harmful effects on fetuses.

About one in five smokers (22 per cent) and potential quitters (19 per cent) said they never look at the health warnings. This is up from five years ago, when 15 per cent of smokers and 11 per cent of quitters reported never looking at the warnings.

At the same time, the number of smokers looking at these warnings several times a day is down, to 22 per cent in November 2007 from 29 per cent in November 2002. The decrease is even more dramatic among potential quitters over these five years, to 24 per cent from 33 per cent.

Health Canada issued a statement Friday saying the research indicates that “awareness of specific health issues related to tobacco-related health hazards is growing.”

The statement added, “Health Canada believes that the warning messages continue to be an effective and efficient way to reach smokers at a very low cost.”

Long-time smoker Arminda Mota is among those who don’t even notice the graphic health warnings when she pulls out her pack of cigarettes multiple times a day.

“It’s worthless, period. No smoker looks at it. We don’t care. That’s not going to make me stop smoking or even think about it,” said Mota, a Montrealer who heads the industry-funded smokers’ rights group mychoice.ca.

Cunningham said Health Canada is currently working on updating the health warnings, but any changes won’t take effect until 2010. He said the delay is unavoidable because any updates will require regulatory changes and a transition period for the tobacco industry.

Environics polled 1,000 smokers and 606 potential quitters. The margins of error for the two groups are plus or minus 3.1 and 4.0 points respectively, 19 times out of 20.

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