The year 2009 saw the passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a law that required that by 2012 cigarette labels have one of several large antismoking graphics. These new warning labels, which depict things such as smoke coming out of a tracheotomy hole in someone’s neck and a woman sobbing, are set to
replace the old plain text warnings, which have remained largely unchanged since 1985.
However, in mid-August, five of the nation’s largest tobacco companies filed suit against the FDA to prevent them from moving forward with these new requirements, saying that they deny the companies there first amendment right to freedom of speech.
The United States was the first country to implement warning labels on cigarette packs back in 1966, a major milestone in raising awareness about the hazards of smoking tobacco. But since then very little has changed, and today our country has one of the smallest and least noticeable warnings of any country in the world. While countries from Thailand to Turkey have required that anywhere from thirty to ninety percent of the packaging be given over to warnings featuring bold text and color pictures, the U.S. requires only a small text warning printed on the side of the package, about as noticeable as the ingredient list on most processed food.
The five companies suing the FDA say that they should not be forced to advertise against there own product; that these labels cross the line between factual warnings and antismoking advocacy.
In a sense they are correct. Junk food manufacturers are not required to print images of bulging stomachs and globs of fat. But what the companies do not mention in their suit is the fact that the only reason they are allowed to sell something that they know is both addictive and dangerous at all is because of the combination of a very powerful lobby and the loose health standards of the past.
Additionally, the images the FDA chose are not particularly shocking or sensational. The cadaver certainly catches they eye, but the other eight pictures, which include a baby looking at smoke and a man wearing an “I Quit” shirt, are quite mild.
For comparison, see Brazil’s current round of cigarette labels, which show such lovely pictures as the back of a mans head split open with blood pouring out or a dead newborn surrounded by cigarette butts and ashes. These are images designed to so revolt people that they will quit smoking just to avoid seeing the packaging. The FDA’s labels are just trying to get across what plain text cannot: the effects of smoking beyond cancerous
lungs and yellowed teeth.
Of course, even if you support the motivation for the labels you would be justified in wondering just how much of a difference something like a picture of some lungs would make in the consumption of such an addictive substance.
According to the CDC, it is quite a big difference. In their study “Young adults’ perceptions of cigarette warning
labels in the United States and Canada,” they exposed smokers and nonsmokers from the U.S. to Canadian warnings labels, which the FDA’s planned labels are based off of, and then asked them about their reactions. A majority of the participants knew of the U.S. labels but said that they ignored them. In contrast, the majority of participants said that the Canadian warnings were more noticeable and more informative. The overall takeaway from the study was that a strong visual combined with a simple factual statement was the best kind warning for getting people to take it seriously.
The United States’ tobacco policy has stagnated for a quarter century while the rest of the world continued to improve the warnings about smoking’s dangers. If it survives this lawsuit, the 2009 law will be the first step in bringing our country up to modern standards.