Perceptions about the health effects of smoking and passive smoking among Victorian adults, 2003-2006

Brennan E, Durkin S 

CBRC Research Paper Series No. 27

As of March 1, 2006, Commonwealth Government legislation mandated that graphic health warnings were to appear on all tobacco products imported and manufactured for retail sale in Australia. Consisting of two rotating sets of seven warnings, this new series of health warnings is intended to educate smokers about the extended range of health effects of tobacco consumption.

The Victorian population telephone survey on smoking and health, conducted in November and December of 2006, provides data on Victorian adults' levels of awareness and beliefs about the health effects of smoking and passive smoking, six months after the introduction of the graphic health warnings.

When asked to spontaneously identify which illnesses are caused by smoking, less than half of all smokers identified each of the illnesses that appear in the new graphic health warnings.

Smokers identified emphysema (43%) and lung cancer (42%) most often, followed by heart disease/attack (30%), mouth/oral cancer (12%), gangrene (12%), circulation problems/blood problems (11%) and throat cancer (11%). Less than 10% of smokers spontaneously identified stroke/vascular disease (8%), eye problems (3%) and pregnancy complications (including miscarriage) (less than 1%) as smoking-related illnesses.

However, when their beliefs were prompted, it was evident that most smokers accepted that smoking causes these illnesses (emphysema 87%; lung cancer 89%; heart disease 82%; mouth/oral cancer 83%; gangrene 67%; throat cancer 86%; and stroke 73%), with the exception of blindness (40%) and miscarriage (42%).

Importantly, there were increases between 2005 and 2006 in top-of-mind awareness of the link between smoking and mouth/oral cancer and gangrene - the two illnesses featured in the media campaign that accompanied the graphic health warnings in 2006. There was also an increase in top-of-mind awareness of emphysema as a smoking-related illness, after this association was highlighted in the Bubblewrap television commercial that aired in early 2006. 

Although more than two-thirds of respondents (67%) believed that exposure to secondhand smoke causes asthma, only one-third believed that it can cause pneumonia in children (33%) and SIDS (31%), and only 16% of respondents believed that it can cause middle ear infections in children.

 Overall, these results provide strong support for measures that continue to educate smokers about the health consequences of smoking and secondhand smoke exposure.