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Hall, Marissa G.; Mendel, Jennifer R.; Noar, Seth M.; & Brewer, Noel T. (2018). Why Smokers Avoid Cigarette Pack Risk Messages: Two Randomized Clinical Trials in the United States. Social Science & Medicine, 213, 165-172. PMCID: PMC6129195


BACKGROUND: Message avoidance (e.g., trying not to look at the message) may be motivated by reactance, a maladaptive rejection of the message. An alternative view is that avoidance indicates that a message is eliciting fear and other negative affect, thereby increasing the likelihood of behavioral change. We sought to identify which psychological mechanism-reactance or fear and other negative affect-explains message avoidance. We also examined whether avoidance was associated with more forgoing or butting out of cigarettes.
METHOD: Trial 1 randomly assigned 2149 adult U.S. smokers to receive either pictorial warnings (intervention) or text-only warnings (control) on their cigarette packs for four weeks in 2014 and 2015. Trial 2 randomly assigned 719 adult U.S. smokers to receive either messages about toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke (intervention) or messages about not littering cigarette butts (control) for three weeks in 2016 and 2017. Negative affect included fear, anxiety, disgust, sadness, and guilt. Reactance included perceived threat to freedom, anger, and counterarguing.
RESULTS: Intervention messages led to greater message avoidance in both trials (both p < .001). In Trial 1, intervention messages elicited greater negative affect, which in turn was associated with greater avoidance (mediated effect = 0.21, p < .001). In contrast, reactance explained only a small part of the effect in Trial 1 (mediated effect = 0.03, p < .001). Similarly, in Trial 2, intervention messages elicited greater negative affect, which was associated with more avoidance (mediated effect = 0.12, p < .001); reactance did not explain any of the effect. In both trials, avoidance was associated with more forgoing or butting out of cigarettes (ps < .001).
CONCLUSIONS: Smokers may avoid cigarette pack risk messages because they evoke aversive types of emotion. These studies add to a growing body of evidence that, in the context of cigarette pack messages, avoidance is not a form of defensive processing but instead a sign of deeper processing.


Reference Type

Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Social Science & Medicine


Hall, Marissa G.
Mendel, Jennifer R.
Noar, Seth M.
Brewer, Noel T.