It’s widespread knowledge that smoking is bad for your health. In fact, it’s so widespread, most brands of cigarettes have health warnings on their boxes and packets. But the United Kingdom is going one step further. Conservative Lord George Young plans to introduce a bill to place health warnings on individual cigarettes. These warnings will read as ‘smoking kills’ and ‘you don’t need me anymore’ and similar messages. If the bill is passed, companies who fail to print these messages will be fined.
Printing Warnings On Individual Cigarettes
There is much approval for this new bill. “This is cost-free, popular, and more effective than health warnings on packets,” said Lord Young. “The government could respond positively and I would be delighted if it did.” 
Deborah Arnott of Action on Smoking and Health agreed. “Cigarettes kill smokers, not cigarette packs, so obviously they are where health warnings are most needed. All it needs is government support for us to become the first country to put ‘smoking kills’ on the cigarette itself.“
However, not everyone agrees with this bill. For instance, Simon Clark from the smokers’ campaign group Forest argued that it’s unnecessary because smokers are already “well aware of the health risks.”
Meanwhile, the All Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health calls for the legal smoking age should be raised from 18 to 21 to lower the number of children and youth smoking and help those trying to quit. The group also agrees with the bill, adding that the tobacco companies should cover the cost of the changes.
Bob Blackman, the head of the group, said, “Our report sets out measures which will put us on track to achieve the government’s ambition to end smoking by 2030, but they can’t be delivered without funding. Tobacco manufacturers make extreme profits selling highly addictive, lethal products, while government coffers are bare because of Covid-19. The manufacturers have the money, they should be made to pay to end the epidemic.” 
Do Health Warnings Actually Work?
While health warnings of cigarette packets are among the most common ways to relay this message, few studies actually evaluated their effectiveness.
The International Tobacco Control (ITC) Four Country Survey contacted 9058 adult smokers via phone calls to the United States, UK, Canada, and Australia. The researchers found that smokers lacked knowledge of the risks of smoking. However, smokers who read the packet warnings were more likely to be aware of the health risks. Additionally, countries that mandated comprehensive warnings helped smokers be more informed. Therefore, large, informative, and clear warnings are more effective. It’s clear that smokers are not as informed about the health risks as the tobacco industry often argues. 
However, warnings on cigarette packs lose their effect as smokers become desensitized to them. “It’s simply due to repetitive exposure,” Aaron Drovandi, from James Cook University, Queensland. “If you look at a disgusting image, it will have an effect, but after you see it many times, it won’t have that same effect.” Drovandi conducts research on smokers and tobacco control.
The Effects of Warnings on Individual Cigarettes
Therefore, in Australia, they took a startling approach to print individual warnings on cigarettes, including “minutes of life lost” that count down as the cigarette burns and shortens. “The novelty of warnings on individual cigarettes were roughly twice as effective as on packaging, and we saw that repeated from a wide range of participants from different age groups and ethnicities,” Drovandi said. 
In the case of warnings on individual cigarettes in the UK, a study by the University of Stirling analyzed the reactions of smokers to these warnings on cigarettes instead of just the boxes. This involved about 120 smokers, aged 16 and over, divided into 20 focus groups. The university reported that the smokers found the warnings “depressing, worrying and frightening,” sometimes making the message more impactful.
Additionally, Cancer Research UK, which financed the study, pointed out that the warnings make the individual cigarettes look “unappealing”. Perhaps this aesthetic could help cut smoking rates.
Dr. Crawford Moodie, who led the study, said, “The consensus was that individual cigarettes emblazoned with warnings would be off-putting for young people, those starting to smoke, and non-smokers. This study suggests that the introduction of such warnings could impact the decision-making of these groups. It shows that this approach is a viable policy option and one which would — for the first time — extend health messaging to the consumption experience.”
The Next Generation of Smokers
In fact, participants in each focus group agreed that warnings on individual cigarettes prolonged the message. This could bode well for the next generation of smokers.
Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “Too many young people are still taking up smoking. Government anti-smoking campaigns and tax rises on cigarettes remain the most effective methods to stop young people from starting smoking, but we need to continue to explore innovative ways to deter them from using cigarettes to ensure that youth smoking rates continue to drop. This study shows that tactics like making the cigarettes themselves unappealing could be an effective way of doing this.” 
If this method goes well in the United Kingdom, perhaps warnings will appear on individual cigarettes in other countries as well.
- “Plan for ‘smoking kills’ warnings on UK cigarettes.” News Australia. Kate Lockley and Ben Hill. June 14, 2021
- “MPs call for age of sale of cigarettes to be raised from 18 to 21 to end ‘tobacco epidemic’ by 2030.” Sky News. Alan McGuinness. June 9, 2021
- “Effectiveness of cigarette warning labels in informing smokers about the risks of smoking.” Tobacco Control. D Hammond, G T Fong, A McNeill, R Borland, and K M Cummings. July 2006
- “Next-level health campaign: warnings on individual cigarettes to help smokers quit.” The Guardian. Michael McGowan. October 2, 2019
- “Print ‘smoking kills’ on individual cigarettes to deter smokers, say health experts.” Sky News. David Mercer. August 30, 2019