Smoking Warning Labels Are Working (For Indigenous Australians, At Least)

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Pack warning labels are motivating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smokers to quit smoking, according to new research released by Menzies School of Health Research today.

The study has shown that graphic warning labels not only motivate quit attempts, but increase Indigenous smokers' awareness of the health issues caused by smoking.

Forming part of the national Talking About The Smokes study led by Menzies in partnership with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services, the 642 study participants completed baseline surveys and follow-up surveys a year later.

The study found that 30 per cent of Indigenous smokers at baseline said that pack warning labels had stopped them having a smoke when they were about to smoke.

Study leader, Menzies' Professor David Thomas said, "This reaction rose significantly among smokers who were exposed to plain packaging for the first time during the period of research. The introduction of new and enlarged warning labels on plain packs had a positive impact upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smokers."

Professor David Thomas, explained the significance of this finding, "Reacting to warning labels by forgoing a cigarette may not seem like much on its own. However, forgoing cigarettes due to warning labels was associated with becoming more concerned about the health consequences of smoking, developing an interest in quitting and attempting to quit. This is significant for our understanding of future tobacco control strategies."

In addition, Indigenous smokers who said at baseline they often noticed warning labels on their packs were 80 per cent more likely to identify the harms of smoking that have featured on warning labels.

Just under two in five (39 per cent) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 and over smoke daily. Smoking is responsible for 23 per cent of the health gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.

In 2012, pack warning labels in Australia were increased in size to 75 per cent on the front of all packs and 90 per cent of the back at the same time as tobacco plain packaging was introduced.

"Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services across 140 health settings are helping smokers in our communities to quit. Pack warning labels are also an important element as smokers read, think about and discuss large, prominent and graphic labels. This comprehensive approach works to reduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smoking and the harm it causes in our communities," said Matthew Cooke from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.

Speaking with Gizmodo, Professor Thomas said the findings are "broadly consistent with previous research among smokers in Australia (and elsewhere) which shows that graphic warning labels contribute to knowledge about the health effects of smoking and motivating quitting".

"It is important to not only assess the impact of Indigenous-specific tobacco control activity (such as the elements of the Australian Government's Tackling Indigenous Smoking program) on helping Indigenous smokers to quit, but also to assess the impact of policies for all Australian smokers (such as plain packaging and increasing the size of warning labels)," he said.

"It is also important to check that these mainstream policies are working among the groups with the highest smoking prevalence, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people."

The study was funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and published in the Nicotine & Tobacco Research journal.

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