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COLLEGE PARK, Md. Imagine picking up a pack of cigarettes covered with a huge label showing diseased lungs.

Would you think twice before lighting up? If you’re already a smoker, it’s possible the label may make you defensive about the choice to smoke rather than encourage quitting.

Xiaoli Nan, director of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Risk Communication, has received a $357,552 National Institutes of Health grant for a two-year study to determine whether writing out a list of one’s good qualities before viewing the graphic warning labels might change a smoker’s views about the habit. The center is part of the College of Arts and Humanities’ Department of Communication. 

The task is a self-affirmation method, based on a psychological theory, to remind smokers of their values. That task can better equip someone to handle threatening risk information, Nan said..

“(Self-affirmation) helps people restore a global sense of goodness, a global sense of feeling good about one’s self,” Nan said.

Nan will study about 300 participants from the African American community. While consumption rates are lower within that community, men are 37-percent more likely to develop lung cancer, Nan said. African American women who smoke have similar rates.

After completing the short writing task, participants will be shown the negative graphic labels. They will then be asked their attitudes toward smoking, intentions to smoke, as well as their evaluations of the warning labels, Nan said. A control group will also be used but they will not be asked to compile the list; they will only be shown the graphic labels, which have been previously proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Nan said she thinks the self-affirmed group will be more receptive to the graphic images. If that outcome is proven by her study, a similar writing task including the positive messages could be easily added to communication-based smoking cessation programs to enhance outcomes, Nan said.

Results from the study will help provide public health educators and government regulators with information on the effectiveness of pairing positive messages with graphic warning labels to communicate smoking risks.

Nan’s research focuses on health and risk communication. Her work has a particular interest in the role of persuasive messages in media play in shaping behavior and perceived risk. Other recent work has included investigations of the design of persuasive messaging to promote human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination, funded in part by the NIH.

“Communication, if done right, is a cost effective method of intervention to correct problem behaviors that compromise health,” Nan said.”Self-affirmation is a promising tool for reducing defensive reactions to health risk information, particularly among high risk populations.”