The impact of cigarette pack design, descriptors, and warning labels on risk perception in the U.S

Am J Prev Med. 2011 Jun;40(6):674-82. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2011.01.021.


Background: In the U.S., limited evidence exists on the impact of colors and brand imagery used in cigarette pack design.

Purpose: This study examined the impact of pack design, product descriptors, and health warnings on risk perception and brand appeal.

Methods: A cross-sectional mall-intercept study was conducted with 197 adult smokers and 200 nonsmokers in Buffalo NY from June to July 2009 (data analysis from July 2009 to December 2010). Participants were shown 12 sets of packs randomly; each set varied by a particular design feature (color, descriptor) or warning label style (text versus graphic, size, attribution, message framing). Packs were rated on criteria including risk perceptions, quit motivation, and purchase interest.

Results: Participants selected larger, pictorial, and loss-framed warning labels as more likely to attract attention, encourage thoughts about health risks, motivate quitting, and be most effective. Participants were more likely to select packs with lighter color shading and descriptors such as light, silver, and smooth as delivering less tar, smoother taste, and lower health risk, compared to darker-shaded or full-flavor packs. Additionally, participants were more likely to select the branded compared to plain white pack when asked which delivered the most tar, smoothest taste, was more attractive, appealed to youth aged <18 years, and contained cigarettes of better quality.

Conclusions: The findings support larger, graphic health warnings that convey loss-framed messages as most effective in communicating health risks to U.S. adults. The results also indicate that color and product descriptors are associated with false beliefs about risks. Plain packaging may reduce many of the erroneous misperceptions of risk communicated through pack design features.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Health Education / methods
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York
  • Product Labeling*
  • Product Packaging*
  • Risk
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Smoking / psychology*
  • Smoking Cessation / psychology
  • Young Adult