Why health warnings can increase cigarettes consumption

By M.Farouk Radwan, MSc.

Health warnings don't work

Do you now that the health warnings on cigarette packs can actually increase smoking?

Health warnings on cigarette packs are getting more and more serious. As a non smoker i find the pictures displayed on cigarette packs very repulsive. Few month ago i saw some stores selling good looking plastic covers that can be used to hide the horrible warning pictures on cigarette packs.

That's not everything. The Tobacco industry is subject to very tough restrictions in most countries and in many countries Tobacco ads are prohibited. In spite of all of these restrictions, obligations and obstacles a very small percentage of smokers manage to quit.

When serious health warnings were first introduced i thought that people would quit but as those health warnings got very severe it became evident that the desire to smoke can't simply be reduced by displaying pictures of sick people or even dead ones.

Why do people smoke?

In order to resolve the mystery we need to get back to the basics and think about the initial reasons that motivated some people to smoke. The first thing you need to understand is that each smoker smokes for different reasons and thus we can't say that all people smoke to get over stress or to fight anxiety.

Some smokers smoke because they want to feel in control. This becomes very evident when a person lights a cigarette as soon as he feels anxious, stressed or helpless. Some smokers do it because they associated smoking with a certain social status. The teen who started to smoke to appear like a man will always unconsciously believe that smoking makes him more masculine until someone shows him the truth.

Now let's stop here and try to find out how would this teen react if he was presented with a health warning? The health warning in such a case isn't trying to persuade him to quit a habit but it's trying to persuade him to become less manly! This is why health warnings don't work. Because unless you understand what a cigarette means to a person you will never be able to motivate him to quit. (see How to motivate someone to stop smoking)

People usually forget about the main reason that motivated them to smoke and then stick to the habit without knowing why they are doing it. If a teen started to smoke to rebel against society or his parents then most probably years later he will forget about that reason but will still be unable to stop.

Now when that teen sees a health warning his unconscious desire to rebel will motivate him to smoke more. In other words if a health warnings reaffirms someone's psychological identity then they will actually motivate him to smoke more.

A health warning that works

So how can people be motivated to quit smoking?
By simply pointing out that brave people don't need an external substance to control stress or anxiety. By pointing out that people smoke when they feel helpless to get a feeling of being in control. By pointing out that emotionally unstable people need external substances to stabilize their moods.

By making it clear that courageous ones face their problems while cowards try to get involved in side activities to distract themselves. By showing that confident people feel comfortable around strangers and don't need to smoke to clam themselves down. By telling them that strong people can face life problems without feeling week, overwhelmed or in need of an external substance to help them survive.

Imagine a health warning that says "You smoke because you are a coward. Brave people don't smoke".
This one will work better than a one that says that smoking can cause death.

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