If, as a smoker, you were forced to look at a warning label like this before lighting up, would you be less likely to buy cigarettes?
Your conscious mind might say, "Of course this would affect me." But research is showing that, in truth, that isn't necessarily the case.
The first major move in regulating the tobacco industry came in 1964, when a report from the surgeon general was able to link smoking with emphysema and lung cancer.
Tobacco companies were required to include warning labels on their products and were no longer allowed to advertise on the radio or television. These changes had the desired effect, as you can see in the graphic below, with the percentage of adults age 18 and older who smoked dropping from 42% in 1965 to just more than 19% last year.
The reduction was caused by a confluence of factors. Veterans -- many of whom had gotten hooked on tobacco that was given to them free during the wars -- no longer had such cheap access to cigarettes. Increased awareness of the unhealthy side effects of smoking combined with an out-of-sight-out-of-mind effect caused by the lack of advertising.
In essence, there was a lot of low-hanging fruit for anti-smoking campaigners to go after.
But with smoking rates leveling out and smoking-related ailments still one of the major causes of death in America, opponents are heating up their tactics once again.
Scary Labels Scaring Up More Business?
Earlier this month, a federal court ruled in favor of granting the FDA the right to include such graphic labels as the one shown above, covering 50% of both sides of a pack of cigarettes. Cigarette makers such as Lorillard (LO) and Reynolds American (RAI) are fighting to stop rule from going into effect.
But if you think such labels will doom the industry, think again.
Some research suggests that this type of advertising could actually increase smoking in America and that both sides in this fight could be misusing their resources.
Branding expert Martin Lindstrom in his book Buyology describes how he and a team of scientists went about studying the brains of current smokers. Using fMRIs to study brainwaves as smokers were exposed to such shocking warning labels, he uncovered some surprising results.
Inside the Brains of Smokers
Although participants in Lindstrom's study were quick to say that gruesome warning labels were enough to help them curb their habit, their brain scans revealed a different story. According to his findings, "Warning labels on the sides, fronts, and backs of cigarette packs had no effect on suppressing smokers' cravings at all. Zero."
And if those findings aren't a little surprising, then consider this: those very same warnings may have subconsciously encouraged smokers to light up: "Cigarette warnings ... had in fact stimulated an area of the smokers' brains called the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as the 'craving spot.'"
Give it a second to sink in, and what this study reveals isn't that revolutionary. Simply by seeing the smoke in the warning above, a smoker's brain is activated to think of nicotine and the rush that comes with it. Once that process is set in motion, it's hard to think of anything else. It's not that different from giving a teenage boy an abstinence-only promo with a scantily clad woman on the cover.
When it comes to helping the roughly 50 million American smokers kick their habit, all of the legal haggling and money spent on this campaign are wastes of time.
Is It Worth Fighting Over Warning Labels?
But just because current smokers seem to be a lost cause when it comes to such warning labels, that doesn't mean they are a complete waste. Lindstrom's studies only focused on current smokers, not potential ones.
It stands to reason that if one hasn't become addicted to nicotine, the same type of reaction to the labels wouldn't be present -- or at least wouldn't be as strong. In that sense, both the tobacco companies and the government are using their resources wisely -- whether to increase future profits or to lower future health-care costs.
Either way, it's important to understand what this battle hopes to accomplish. Current smokers are being sacrificed to prevent potential smokers from joining their ranks. To me, that's a trade-off that makes sense, but that's just my opinion. Sound off in the comments section below to let us know what you think.
Motley Fool contributor Brian Stoffel does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this piece, or any tobacco companies in general. You can follow him on Twitter, where he goes by TMFStoffel.