Tag Archives: Warning label

Why the New FDA Cigarette Labels Won’t Work

Here’s a link to copies of the new, “approved” images that will be on the top half of every pack of cigarette:


If we want the rate of smoking-related deaths to decrease I think it’s a given that we have to prevent anyone from beginning to smoke. That’s the idea behind the new labels. The FDA wants to make people who smoke face the potential consequences of their decision every time they pull out a pack. Let’s hope people don’t start investing in cigarette cases. (They are pretty sleek, even if you do have to keep refilling them, which does force you to look at one of 9 “anti-smoking” images, but far less often than the 7,000 times a year or so a pack-a-day habit would normally do.)

Another of the purported goals of this new labeling is to reduce the number of children and teens who start smoking. And FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, interviewed on PBS Newshour, admitted that most people who smoke start before they are 18. So the FDA hopes that looking at these images will discourage teens and younger from trying the first however many cigarettes it takes to make smoking a habit.

Here’s the problem I see.

According to the FDA’s press release, “The FDA selected nine images from the originally proposed 36 after reviewing the relevant scientific literature, analyzing the results from an 18,000 person study and considering more than 1,700 comments from a variety of groups, including the tobacco industry, retailers, health professionals, public health and other advocacy groups, academics, state and local public health agencies, medical organizations and individual consumers.”

Did you notice that they consulted with the tobacco industry on which images would best deter potential smokers? Did you notice that no mention was made of working with teens, smoking or non, as individuals or as part of advocacy groups to find out what types of images would most effectively discourage these same children from beginning to smoke? Dr. Hamburg mentioned a few times that these labels are based on what’s been done in other countries, but why not mention what has worked with U.S. teens in the past?

This image warns that cigarettes are addictive. But how are teens expected to think it applies to them when this man is obviously older and less attractive than teens perceive–or hope–themselves to be? And how many teens have children of their own? The mother in this image is obviously older.

Why is this image a cartoon? It makes the infant’s distress less real, and not even graphic novel fans would identify it with the consequences of smoking without the words. Babies cry all the time, after all, especially when they’re in the NICU.

How many of the following situations are real for teens, who believe they can smoke while its cool and quit whenever they want? How many teens suffer from these consequences?

Even the “quitter” is significantly older than teens. Teens want to be like their peers, not their parents.

Then there’s the dead smoker. Why doesn’t his autopsy incision match the Y-incision on all the crime shows? Even if it’s more realistic, it’s not what teens perceive as real.

And how is a sobbing older woman going to drive home to teens the consequences of secondhand smoke?

Another danger: Will teens rebel against this effort as they have in the past and start collecting the labels? Will they identify themselves with one of the images and insist on purchasing only that label?

Finally, where are the statistics that prove this type of campaign works for teens? Why is the FDA launching a campaign that potentially infringes on the right of Big Tobacco to label a legal product without the proof that it will actually influence real teens who are being tempted to smoke their first cigarettes? Big Tobacco is putting up a fight (the suit was filed in 2009), but if they had input in the development of these labels how are we sure they won’t find a way around them, a loophole that they influenced?

This last point is less important than what will actually work for teens, and as the truth campaigns that started in Florida proved, health risks don’t give teens a reason to not smoke or to stop smoking: peer pressure does and believing Big Tobacco is manipulating consumers does. An excellent read on this very phenomenon, Join the Club by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tina Rosenberg (the link is not intended to promote purchases; please feel free to check it out of your library).