Forward Thinking

Examining the “Show, Don’t Tell” Concept of Cigarette Warning Labels

Matthew Rousu portrait

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then could a graphic image deter people from smoking? That’s the question Assistant Professor of Economics Matthew Rousu is exploring thanks to a nearly $100,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The grant is allowing Rousu to investigate the impact graphic warning labels have on U.S. buyers.

“Although the United States was the first country to mandate cigarette warning labels in 1965, current labeling policy has been left unchanged for 24 years, in spite of its apparent inefficacy,” Rousu says.

Rousu began researching this topic a few years ago in Mexico. He staged an auction in which he asked 89 smokers to bid on two packs of the same name-brand cigarette. The only difference between the packs was that one contained a high-quality graphic-design sticker depicting the grotesque image of a mass of red tumors protruding from a man’s neck.

His findings suggested that people are less inclined to buy cigarettes when an explicit image is placed on cigarette containers showing the damage smoking can do to the human body. After his research was completed, the Mexican government enacted legislation that makes such images mandatory on cigarette cartons. Mexico joins England and Canada in this effort to deter smoking.

Now that Rousu is able to proceed with his research in the United States, he has enlisted the assistance of Erin Dinsmore ’10, an accounting major from Harrisburg, Pa. Dinsmore is in charge of running the experimental auctions, which are aimed at determining the impact graphic images have on the spending habits of cigarette buyers.

By randomly recruiting smokers in grocery stores, Rousu and Dinsmore hope to learn how much money buyers are willing to spend on cigarettes after seeing such images. They will conduct the first of four auctions this spring. Their research will be conducted in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York and California.

“Experimental auctions such as this can provide policymakers with information about differences in the potential impact alternative warning labels implemented in other countries may have on U.S. consumers,” Rousu says.

 

Contributing writers to The ‘Grove are Sondra Zanetto ’09, Stephanie Beazley ‘10 and Victoria Kidd.



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