© 2015 Cataldo et al.; licensee BioMed Central. Background: Smokers over the age of 45 are the only group with an increase in smoking prevalence, are the least likely to quit smoking, and bear most of the burden of tobacco-related disease. Research characterizing older adult perceptions of warning labels and anti-tobacco messages has not been reported in the literature. The purpose of this study was to describe whether older smokers perceived warning labels and anti-tobacco messages as effective for the promotion of smoking cessation. A secondary aim was to explore what types of messages and message delivery formats are most relevant to older adult smokers. Methods: This focus group study is part of a larger study to characterize older smokers' perceptions of the risks and benefits associated with conventional and emerging tobacco products and determine the extent to which these perceptions relate to exposure to pro- and anti-tobacco messages. From April 2013 to August 2014 we conducted eight focus groups with 51 current and former smokers a focus group study in urban and suburban California. A semi-structured format about current use of conventional and emerging tobacco products was used. Participants were asked to recall and comment on examples of warning labels and anti-tobacco messages. Data were transcribed and thematically coded. Results: Warning labels and anti-smoking messages were seen as ineffective for smoking cessation motivation among older California smokers. Positive framed anti-tobacco messages were identified as most effective. Text-only warnings were seen as ineffective due to desensitizing effects of repeated exposure. Negative messages were described as easy to ignore, and some trigger urges to smoke. Older adults are knowledgeable about the risks and health effects of smoking. However, they tend to be less knowledgeable about the benefits of cessation and may underestimate their ability to quit. Conclusion: These findings suggest that messages with a positive frame that outline immediate and long-term benefits of cessation would be an effective approach for long-term smokers. Current anti-tobacco messaging was generally not seen as effective for smoking cessation among long-term smokers.