Introduction: Social interactions are a key mechanism through which health communication efforts, including pictorial cigarette pack warnings, may exert their effects. We sought to better understand social interactions elicited by pictorial cigarette pack warnings.
Methods: A controlled trial randomly assigned US adult smokers (n = 2149) to have their cigarette packs labeled with pictorial or text-only warnings for 4 weeks. Smokers completed surveys during the baseline visit and each of the subsequent 4 weekly visits.
Results: Smokers with pictorial warnings on their packs had more conversations throughout the trial compared to those with text-only warnings (8.2 conversations vs 5.0, p<.01). The highest number of conversations occurred during the first week. Smokers with pictorial warnings were more likely than those with text-only warnings to discuss the health effects of smoking, whether the warnings would make them want to quit and whether the warnings would make others want to quit (all p < .05). Smokers were more likely to describe pictorial warnings as scary, gross, or depressing and gloomy during conversations than text-only warnings (all p < .05).
Conclusions: Pictorial warnings sparked more conversations about the warnings, the health effects of smoking, and quitting smoking than text-only warnings. These social interactions may extend the reach of pictorial warnings beyond the targeted smoker and may be one of the processes by which pictorial warnings have impact.
Implications: Health communication can influence behavior by changing social interactions. Our trial characterized social interactions about pictorial cigarette pack warnings with a large longitudinal sample in a real-world setting. Understanding these conversations can inform the United States and other countries as they improve existing warnings and help tobacco control policy makers and health communication theorists understand how social interactions triggered by warnings affect smoking.