It's been a long time since actress Audrey Hepburn made smoking look glamorous in her Breakfast at Tiffany's role. It's also been a while since the US highways were littered with billboards dominated by sexy people puffing on cigarettes to advertise various brands. Back in the heyday of smoking, when tobacco companies gave free cigarette packs to veterans returning from war and the American Medical Association promoted the health benefits of smoking, it seemed unthinkable that the day would come when cigarette ads would be banned. But in fact, the 1970 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act made it illegal for tobacco companies to advertise on television and radio, and subsequent legislation did the same for billboards.1
Now, the FDA wants to go a step further. Pending legislation would force tobacco companies to attach very graphic warning labels, including disturbing images, to cigarette packages.2 The proposed warnings include one that would show a corpse with a stitched-up chest and feature the caption: "Warning: Smoking can kill you." Another shows a man smoking through a hole in his throat with the caption, "Warning: Cigarettes are addictive." And a third juxtaposes an image of healthy lungs against an image of black lungs, with the warning, "Smoking causes fatal lung disease."3 These warnings would appear on the entire top half of the front and back of the package. And any advertisements for cigarettes also would include the warnings with a number for stop-smoking hotlines.
Naturally, every time the government tries to hinder the efforts of the tobacco companies to recruit new smokers, the industry kicks back with a vengeance. This time, five major players including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco Company, Commonwealth Brands Inc., Liggett Group LLC, and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, have sued the government, claiming that to institute such repackaging would irreparably harm their businesses and be in violation of their free speech rights. They say it's also unconstitutional for the government to run its own advocacy campaign on product labels. And they've asked for an injunction to prohibit the FDA from instituting the plan.
"Never before in the United States have producers of a lawful product been required to use their own packaging and advertising to convey an emotionally-charged government message urging adult consumers to shun their products," the companies wrote in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C.
The tobacco companies also complain that the warnings don't accurately portray the truth. They say the corpse photo is an actor with a fake scar instead of a real dead person, and that autopsies rarely get performed on people who die from lung disease, anyway. (Wow, that just makes such a difference, doesn't it?) They say the messages were manipulated to be emotional.
And it's hard to deny that, from a certain standpoint, they do have a case. It's true that the shocking labels may lead to diminished sales and profits. (Then again, does anyone else remember Coffin Cigarettes?4) One could almost feel sorry for the tobacco companies and get behind their righteous indignation, except for the fact that the industry giants haven't exactly exemplified spotless morality and fairness in their own workings. For instance, after the mainstream media advertising channels closed down, the industry started marketing full-force to mentally ill and homeless individuals (no, really, that's not a joke), to youth and minorities, and to third-world countries.5
And then there's the fact that cigarettes really do kill. In fact, almost half a million people in the US die from smoking-related illnesses every year, and of these, about 50,000 are from secondhand smoke (not to mention third hand smoke). One in five deaths in the US may be attributed to smoking. Even in spite of the restrictions on cigarette advertising, about 3000 kids try smoking for the first time every day.6
You could argue that the tobacco industry has been unfairly singled out. After all, potato chips and processed meats don't do much for longevity, either, and they don't need to carry warning labels; nor do candy bars need to feature images of obese kids…yet. Televisions don't come with labels showing people turning into zombies or gaining weight from couch-potato syndrome. Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, do bear print warnings about side effects, but the labels are in very tiny print and don't show pictures of people keeling over from those side effects or dying from them, even if those things happen with some regularity.
The sad truth is that a good percentage of the things we eat and use by all rights could have more convincing warning labels. Perhaps we will move in that direction in time, but for now, the warnings apply only to tobacco products. Maybe it's because tobacco affects not only the user, but those in proximity to the user, too. Your ice-cream habit will make only you gain weight, but your cigarette habit could give cancer to your friends.
In any event, assuming the legislation goes into effect as scheduled, the bigger question is, will it work? Already, 46 countries have laws requiring that cigarettes bear similar graphic labels, but no data is available yet to track effectiveness. Some say that a mere picture of a corpse won't be enough to deter a determined smoker, but others think that the images certainly will make a dent. On the other hand, The Atlantic conducted a reader poll asking if they thought the images would be disturbing enough to make smokers quit.7 The response was mixed, but one reader, "Meaux," made an interesting point about readers worrying more about vanity than health:
He says, "A guy that smokes won't care if his pack of smokes says, "Smoking by pregnant women may cause low birth weight", in a 10-point font. However, he might think otherwise pulling out a pack that says, "SMOKING CAUSES IMPOTENCE," in bold 20-point font … Same goes for the single 20-something female when she sees the one that says that smoking causes wrinkles."
Perhaps Billy Crystal was onto something when he played Fernando on Saturday Night Live. His tag line was, "It's better to look good than to feel good." Maybe the thought police should keep that in mind when designing their graphic messages. In the meantime, for those looking to quit smoking, there are herbal combinations that can help.
1 "39th Anniversary of Ban on Cigarette Advertising." Botvin Life Skills Training. 22 September 2011/ <http://botvinlifeskillstraining.wordpress.com/2009/04/01/39th-anniversary-of-cigarette-advertising-ban/>
2 Wetzstein, Cheryl. "Cigarette makers sue to block new graphic warnings. 21 September 2011. The Washington Times. <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/sep/21/cigarette-makers-sue-to-block-new-graphic-warnings/>
3 "Tobacco firms sue FDA over new graphic warnings." 17 August 2011. USA Today. 23 September 2011. <http://yourlife.usatoday.com/health/story/2011/08/Tobacco-firms-sue-FDA-over-new-graphic-warnings/50021322/1>
4 GREENMUZE STAFF. "Coffin Cigarette Pack." 08 DEC 2009 GreenMuze. Accessed 25 Sept 2011. <http://www.greenmuze.com/green-your/body/1936-coffin-cigarette-pack-.html>
5 Kiume, Sandra. "Tobacco Marketing to the Homeless and Mentally Ill." World of Psychology. 23 September 2011. <http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2007/02/22/tobacco-marketing-to-the-homeless-and-mentally-ill/>
6 Ianelli, Vincent, MD. "Teens and Cigarette Smoking." 31 October 2010. About.com. 23 September 2011. <http://pediatrics.about.com/od/teenagers/a/teens_smoking.htm>
7 Knapp, Courtney. "Will FDA's New Gruesome Warnings Reduce the Number of New Smokers?" 22 June 2011. The Atlantic. 23 September 2011. <http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/06/will-fdas-new-gruesome-warnings-reduce-the-number-of-smokers/240843/>