Background Eye-tracking technology has indicated that daily smokers actively avoid pictorial cigarette package health warnings. Avoidance may be due to a pre-cognitive perceptual bias or a higher order cognitive bias, such as reduced emotional processing. Using electroencephalography (EEG), this study aimed to identify the temporal point at which smokers’ responses to health warnings begin to differ. Method Non-smokers (n = 20) and daily smokers (n = 20) viewed pictorial cigarette package health warnings and neutral control stimuli. These elicited Event Related Potentials reflecting early perceptual processing (visual P1), pre-attentive change detection (visual Mismatch Negativity), selective attentional orientation (P3) and a measure of emotional processing, the Late Positive Potential (LPP). Results There was no evidence for a difference in P1 responses between smokers and non-smokers. There was no difference in vMMN and P3 amplitude but some evidence for a delay in vMMN latency amongst smokers. There was strong evidence for delayed and reduced LPP to health warning stimuli amongst smokers compared to non-smokers. Conclusion We find no evidence for an early perceptual bias in smokers’ visual perception of health warnings but strong evidence that smokers are less sensitive to the emotional content of cigarette health warnings. Future health warning development should focus on increasing the emotional salience of pictorial health warning content amongst smokers.
- Health warnings