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Olivia Maynard awarded ESRC New Investigator Grant

8 September 2017

Olivia Maynard has been awarded an ESRC New Investigator Grant for a two-year project entitled ‘Smoking kills, but you can quit: Threat and efficacy messaging to prevent tobacco smoking among adults and adolescents’.

Although health warnings with strong, threatening images and messages are used on cigarette packs in over 100 countries, there is evidence that smokers may avoid them or react negatively towards them. Theory suggests that warnings are most likely to result in positive behaviour change if they combine threatening messages with those which increase a smoker's perceived ability to stop smoking and knowledge of the benefits of stopping (known as 'efficacy' messages).

Despite this, there has been very little research on the impact of efficacy messages on tobacco warnings, no research on how adolescents respond to efficacy messages and almost no adoption of efficacy messages on tobacco warnings globally.

Based at the University of Tasmania for the first 6 months of the grant, Olivia will conduct online experiments among adult and adolescent smokers. These experiments will examine, for the first time, responses to threatening and efficacy warnings and their impact on attitudes towards smoking. Olivia will then use the findings of these studies to conduct two studies among adults and adolescents to measure self-reported reactions, brain activation and smoking behaviour in response to health warnings.

This project is timely and important, not only because of the recent introduction of standardised packaging of cigarettes. Britain's exit from the EU will provide the UK government with a unique opportunity to implement new warnings and strengthen tobacco control policies, as these will no longer be enforced by the EU-wide Tobacco Products Directive.

This research is novel in a number of ways. First, it will provide objective and previously unexplored insights into differences in response to warnings among adults and adolescents. Second, it will develop our understanding of the mechanisms underlying responses to efficacy and threatening warnings. Finally, it will produce the first evidence demonstrating how neural and subjective responses to warnings are related and how these predict longer-term smoking behaviours and attitudes. This research will support the development of better, more effective warnings for tobacco products and provide a toolkit for the development of effective warnings for a range of unhealthy products, such as alcohol and unhealthy food, which can be used by academics and policymakers internationally. This project ultimately aims to reduce the rates of premature death and disease caused by smoking by providing evidence to support tobacco packaging policy change.