12A.0 Introduction and rationale for health warnings

Last updated: July 2019     

Suggested citation: Scollo, M. & Hippolyte, D. 12A.0 Introduction and rationale for health warnings. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2019. Available from: https://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-12-tobacco-products/attachment-12-1-health-warnings/12-a-0-introduction-and-rationale

Mandated health warnings on tobacco packaging are a highly cost-effective way to:

  • inform consumers about the toxic constituents of tobacco smoke and the health effects of smoking
  • provide details of where to go for advice on quitting.

Requiring such warnings on every package ensures that smokers and potential smokers see the warnings every time they are about to purchase a tobacco product, and every time they handle it. A 20-per-day smoker would be exposed to a health warning about 7000 times each year.

Pictorial warnings should allow important information about tobacco products to be conveyed to and understood by children and others with limited literacy.

Experience in designing, evaluating and upgrading consumer product information for tobacco products both in Australia and elsewhere indicates that the content, style and presentation of package warnings can greatly affect how noticeable and how memorable they are, and the extent to which consumers understand, believe and feel empowered to act upon the information they contain.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (the Convention) contains provisions relevant to packaging and labelling of tobacco products under Article 11.i The Convention is an international treaty that provides a global policy framework for Parties to implement strong measures against the death and disease caused by smoking.      

Under Article 11, Parties to the Convention are required to ensure that each package of tobacco products carries health warnings that:


  • are in the country’s principal language/s;
  • are rotating; large, clear, visible and legible;
  • cover 50 per cent or more of the principal display area but no less than 30 per cent;
  • may include pictures;
  • as well as ensuring packaging is not misleading or likely to create the impression that a particular product is less harmful than another.


In 2008, the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco adopted Guidelines intended to assist Parties to meet their obligations under Article 11ii. The Guidelines include a number of key recommendations regarding health warning design including that health warnings: 


  • cover as much of the main display areas as possible;
  • be placed on the front and back of packaging recognising that the front is the most visible part of a package;
  • be placed at the top rather than the bottom of packaging to increase visibility;
  • include both pictures and text as evidence shows they are far more effective than text only warnings;
  • cover a range of topics as different warnings resonate with different people; and
  • are rotated as messages and changes in layout and design are important to maintain saliency and increase effectiveness. (WHO FCTC, Article 11 Guidelines)iii


More and more countries are moving to pictorial warnings, with large and extremely potent images required in an increasing number of jurisdictions. It is expected that this trend will continue as parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control move towards implementation of Article 11. 

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i WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, opened for signature 16 June 2003, 2302 UNTS 166 (entered into force 27 February 2005) (FCTC) Available from: http://www.who.int/tobacco/framework/WHO_FCTC_english.pdf

ii Decisions of the Third Session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Durban, South Africa, 17–22 November 2008. Document FCTC/COP/3/DIV/3; 16 February 2009, p19. Decision FCTC/COP3(10)–Guidelines for implementation of Article 11. Available from: http://apps.who.int/gb/fctc/PDF/cop3/FCTC_COP3_DIV3-en.pdf.

iii Conference of the Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Guidelines for implementation of Article 11: Guidelines on packaging and labelling of tobacco products. Adopted at third session, November 2008. World Health Organization, 2008. Available from: http://www.who.int/fctc/protocol/guidelines/adopted/article_11/en/index.html