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Objective Countries around the world have increasingly adopted pictorial health warning labels (HWLs) for tobacco packages to warn consumers about smoking-related risks. Research on how pictorial HWLs work has primarily analysed self-reported responses to HWLs; studies at the neural level comparing the brain's response to different types of HWLs may provide an important complement to prior studies, especially if self-reported responses are systematically biased. In this study we characterise the brain's response to three types of pictorial HWLs for which prior self-report studies indicated different levels of efficacy.

Methods Current smokers rated pictorial HWLs and then observed the same HWLs during functional MRI (fMRI) scanning. Fifty 18–50-year-old current adult smokers who were free from neurological disorders were recruited from the general population and participated in the study. Demographics, smoking-related behaviours and self-reported ratings of pictorial HWL stimuli were obtained prior to scanning. Brain responses to HWLs were assessed using fMRI, focusing on a priori regions of interest.

Results Pictorial HWL stimuli elicited activation in a broad network of brain areas associated with visual processing and emotion. Participants who rated the stimuli as more emotionally arousing also showed greater neural responses at these sites.

Conclusions Self-reported ratings of pictorial HWLs are correlated with neural responses in brain areas associated with visual and emotional processing. Study results cross-validate self-reported ratings of pictorial HWLs and provide insights into how pictorial HWLs are processed.