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Dalhousie, Nova Scotia Lung Association study backs benefits of plain cigarette packaging

Boring is best when it comes to cigarette packaging, a Halifax researcher has concluded.

Mohammed Al-Hamdani worked with 50 smokers using eye-tracking technology and tests that measured the motivation to smoke. He found that plain cigarette packaging not only increases attention to health warnings for all smokers, it also deters some smokers' desire to smoke.

“It’s this very boring standardized area in a very boring font that dissolves any kind of intertwining blue or red colours,” said Al-Hamdani, who holds a doctorate in psychology specializing in addictions, in a recent interview at Dalhousie University, where he conducted his latest research.

“Now it forces you to look at the only other thing that is not boring, which is the image."

A plain cigarette package is mostly taken up with a health warning and a graphic image, such as a person dying of cancer or a cancerous growth on a patient’s tongue.

The cigarette manufacturer’s name is placed in a generic font at the bottom of the package.

Health Canada has forced Canadian cigarette manufacturers to use plain packaging since Nov. 9. The agency says research has shown that plain and standardized packaging reduces the appeal and attractiveness of tobacco products, especially to youth.

Al-Hamdani is the first researcher in Canada to demonstrate the specific attention and motivation responses that a smoker exhibits when exposed to plain versus branded packaging, according to a news release from Mitacs, the non-profit research support group that funded the project.

He's also the executive director of Smoke-Free Nova Scotia and director of health initiatives for the Nova Scotia Lung Association.

As a Mitacs Elevate fellowship winner, Al-Hamdani worked under the supervision of Sherry Stewart, a professor in Dalhousie’s departments of psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience and community health and epidemiology, and Robert MacDonald, CEO of the N.S. Lung Association.

The study, which began in February 2018, was conducted in two labs at Dalhousie’s department of psychology. In one lab, the participants - all smokers who were pre-screened for personality traits, health habits and other factors - were hooked up to eye-tracking software that measured exactly where on a cigarette packing their eyes went to and precisely how long they eyes stayed on particular areas.

They looked at 50 images that were displayed for five seconds on a computer monitor.

Al-Hamdani found that the crucial area on the package is the bottom 25 per cent, where the manufacturer’s name will be printed in a generic font on the new plain packaging.

“You may think it doesn't make a difference but that’s what we found, it actually does,” he said. “So through this eye-tracking equipment, we’re able to see how much time people are spending on the graphic warning when it’s presented on a package like this, versus a branded package.”

The other study site is one of only two labs that allow for indoor smoking in a lab setting in Eastern Canada. In that lab, plain and branded cigarette packages were placed in front of the participants during separate trials. A lit cigarette also was placed in front of them in an ashtray.

To earn their first puff, the participant had tap a space bar on a computer keyboard 10 times. For their second puff they had to tap 13 times, their third 17 and so on, Al-Hamdani explained.

He documented how fast the smoker went for the cigarette after earning their puff and recorded how many levels the smokers progressed in chasing additional puffs.

“With plain packages, they were less motivated to continue to smoke in comparison with the branded packages," particularly those participants who were more health-conscious in general and had a deeper fear of illness.

Al-Hamdani said his findings are significant because they can be used by Health Canada to defend the implementation of plain packaging policy, should court challenges arise.

He emphasized the importance of Mitacs’ support of his work. Over the past two years, besides his plain cigarette packaging study, Al-Hamdani has been active in federal and provincial tobacco-related consultations, published peer-reviewed studies and has been involved in many other projects.

Thousands of researchers apply for Mitacs funding each year in eight different categories.

“Mitacs changed my life,” he said in an email after the initial interview. “Within two years, I became a respected and well-known researcher and health professional at the national stage. My work and research have been featured from coast to coast and recognized by senior government officials as a basis for propelling tobacco control policies".

This article originally appeared at the Chronicle Herald website


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