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Can Smokers Be Shocked Into Quitting?

Public smoking bans, written warnings, shocking images on cigarette packets: Deterrent measures grow worldwide, though consumption in developing countries continues to rise.

Last one till the next one
Last one till the next one
Pia Ratzesberger

MUNICH — It’s almost impossible to imagine Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca without a cigarette in his hand. And what would Holly Golightly be without her signature cigarette holder?

A few years ago, a study at the University of San Francisco showed that even as smoking becomes more taboo in society and the number of smokers decreases, screen representations of smoking are more prevalent. The last few years have seen a sharp increase in anti-smoking measures worldwide, so if this trend holds we can expect more actors lighting up in films.

Now, the latest anti-smoking effort comes from the European Parliament, which has voted to force cigarette companies to put shocking images on packets as a deterrent.

In its 2013 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that a third of the global population is affected in some way by anti-smoking measures, yet tobacco consumption is still on the rise worldwide. In developed countries, anti-smoking campaigns are effective, but the same cannot be said of developing countries, which are home to 80% of the world’s smokers. “If we could achieve similar progress in all countries, 10 million deaths linked to smoking could be prevented,” says Georgetown University Professor David Levy, lead researcher of the WHO study.

Turkey and Australia lead the way

In countries like Turkey, stricter regulations have already produced significant results. Three years ago, pictures of blackened lungs and people in hospital wards appeared on cigarette packets, and smoking has long been forbidden in many public places such as universities and cafes. These measures appear to be working: The number of men who smoke has dropped from 48% in 2008 to 41.5% today. “Turkey is heading in the right direction, taking steps towards becoming a smoking-free country,” the WHO report concludes.

Australia has gone one step further. Since last December, cigarette packs in the country have become almost unrecognizable. Virtually their entire surface area is covered in shocking images and written warnings. Although experts maintain that it is not yet clear whether the pictures are influencing Australians’ smoking habits, they do seem to be reducing their enjoyment of smoking. In the months following the change, there were many complaints about the taste of some cigarettes, even though the products had not changed. “People were confronted with these disgusting images, and that affected the way they experienced the taste,” Australian Health Minister Tanya Plibersek told The New York Times.

Scientists still divided

The German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg is convinced that larger warnings on cigarette packets and, above all, shocking images are a vital step in the fight against smoking. The center points to over 90 studies that show “combined warnings” are far more effective than written warnings alone — “smoking kills” and “smokers die younger,” for example. Still, in countries such as Thailand or Brazil, which have introduced large written warnings on cigarette packets, these alone have helped to curb smoking.

Scientists disagree about whether the photographs actually help people quit smoking. A U.S. study carried out at the beginning of this year showed that the photos produce “emotional reactions” but do not change a person’s individual attitude toward smoking. Anyone who wants to stop will do so with or without the pictures.

According to WHO, higher taxes and smoking bans in both public places and company buildings are the most effective anti-smoking measures. In recent years, smoking bans have been particularly popular throughout the world: Between 2007 and 2012 alone, 32 countries banned smoking in all workplaces, all public places and on all public transport.

Even in New York, cigarettes have been banished from most public places. Nowadays, even Audrey Hepburn’s elegant cigarette holder balanced so delicately between her fingers would not be so welcome.

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