Perceptions about the health effects of smoking & passive smoking among Victorian adults, 2003-2007

Molly McCarthy
Daniella Germain
Emily Brennan
Sarah Durkin

CBRC Research Paper Series No. 37 


From 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. Since this time Australian smokers have been exposed to two series of graphic health warnings on cigarette packs depicting a range of illnesses associated with smoking and passive smoking, most recently Series B.

Additionally in 2007, legislation was introduced in Victoria banning smoking in the indoor areas of all hospitality venues. This report examines Victorian smokers' spontaneous and prompted recall of a range of health effects depicted in the graphic health warnings, and also examines Victorians beliefs about the illnesses caused by exposure to passive smoke, from 2003 to 2007.

In 2007, there was a significant increase in the salience of a range of smoking related illnesses amongst smokers, primarily from the Series B graphic health warnings, which would have entered circulation in November 2006 as Series A was phased out. Lung cancer (Series B) was the most frequently spontaneously identified smoking related illness (50%), and spontaneous recall of this illness increased from 2006 (42%).

Thirty-four per cent of Victorian smokers spontaneously identified heart disease/heart attack (Series B) as smoking caused illness, which was a trend towards an increase from 2003 (25%). Stroke/vascular disease (Series B) was spontaneously identified as a smoking related illness by 14% of smokers in 2007 and this was a significant increase from 2006 (8%). Top of mind awareness of eye problems increased significantly amongst smokers to 8%, from 3% in 2006, while spontaneous recall of pregnancy complications as smoking related illness showed a trend towards an increase from 0.3% in 2006 to 2% in 2007.

Despite increases in spontaneous awareness of smoking related illness depicted in Series B, smokers still showed very low levels of top of mind awareness for a number of serious smoking related illnesses, including mouth cancer (12%), throat cancer (11%), and gangrene (6%). The lack of increase in the Series A graphic health warnings following a period of non-exposure suggests that the impact of these warnings on top of mind awareness appears to stabilise or dissipate after a period of non-exposure.

The proportion of Victorians who accept the link between passive smoking and a range of illnesses, including asthma (Series A), SIDS (Series A), and pneumonia in children (Series A), increased significantly between 2006 and 2007, which is in contrast to the findings for the other Series A graphic health warnings and may be in part due to the introduction of the smoking bans in hospitality venues and other media or public health activity surrounding this.