Graphic Warning Labels: A Fresh New Step

Each year nearly half a million tobacco users in the United States die of tobacco-related deaths. Of this vast majority, nearly 1,100 of the lives claimed by tobacco related illnesses—such as lung disease, cancer, and heart disease—come from Hawai’i. Currently, one in five adults in the United States are regular cigarette users despite these risks. It is highly likely that each of us know at the very least one family member and friend who are victims to the highly-addictive habit. Part of the reason twenty one percent of our population engages in this practice is because of our country’s slow initiative in adopting [effective] anti-smoking campaigns. In comparison to other countries’ efforts at educating its public on the risks of tobacco use, Michael Cummings, chair of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Department of Health Behavior, compares the United States’ progress to a third world country.

On June 21, 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that cigarette packs sold in the U.S. after September 2012 will picture nine gory images—covering fifty percent of the pack’s surface area—warning users of the effects associated with tobacco-use. This progressive campaign will align the United States’ effort with forty other countries who have led the way in raw and honest tobacco advertising. I expect the new graphic health warning labels, as part of a broader anti-smoking initiative, will be successful in decreasing the number of smokers in the United States, resulting in more lives saved, an increase in life expectancy, and lower medical costs.

Despite the success of the graphic health warning labels in countries like Canada, Uruguay, and Brazil, there is much public outcry in the United States – mostly from tobacco companies and smokers. Opponents of the new graphic labels argue that the new action simply won’t work. In her Huffington Post article, Catherine New, a past cigarette user, applauds the effort to prevent tobacco use through graphic advertisements, but suggests that this will not keep tobacco-addicts from lighting up. New argues that this effort must be supported by other educational efforts like the sharing of successful stories from people who have quit. But I feel it takes much more than graphic warnings and stories to persuade tobacco-addicts to quit the habit. The new anti-tobacco campaign may be successful in inspiring addicts on the verge of quitting to finally take the plunge; but I expect the new warning labels to be most effective among younger generations who may be considering picking up the habit.

Research presented in the Time article “Addicted: Why Do People Get Hooked?” sheds light on the addictive quality of nicotine, a chief agent in tobacco. Scientists hypothesize that dopamine—a chemical that transmits pleasure and is amplified once nicotine enters the bloodstream—may also contribute to addiction. Understanding the highly addictive quality of tobacco, a federal judge in 1997 ruled that the Food and Drug Administration had “the right to regulate tobacco as a drug and cigarettes as drug-delivery devices.”

Considering the addictive nature of cigarettes, the FDA’s new graphic labels may not necessarily be targeted toward current smokers; instead, they may work most effectively as a deterrent against potential smokers. According to a press release from the FDA, the nine images chosen to stretch across the top half of cigarette packs illustrate the spectrum of negative impacts caused by cigarette use. Careful consideration was put into the nine images, which were narrowed down from 36 after compiling the results of 18,000 survey participants. The surveyed group chose the images they felt would have the strongest impact on smokers. The nine chosen images include a picture of smoke escaping from a man’s tracheotomy hole; a sewn up corpse; decaying gum and teeth; and diseased lungs. In addition to the visual and written warnings, each ad lists the 1-800-QUIT-NOW begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              1-800-QUIT-NOW      end_of_the_skype_highlighting hotline number.

Behavioral psychologist Carol Tavris argues that the graphic labels will be ineffective because of the behavioral phenomenon, cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance arises from a clash between two conflicting beliefs. Tavris suggests that this phenomenon will be illustrated most effectively in our smoking-population, as they consider the health risks presented by the graphics, but override the disturbing new images by poking fun at the graphics. Furthermore, the 18,000 survey participants were not asked whether the graphics were compelling enough to make them quit smoking. Considering the obvious psychological implications that arise from tobacco use, I would not expect images or warnings—which most tobacco users are already aware of—to inspire a majority of our smoking population to kick the habit. Instead, the FDA has attempted to recreate the “cool” image to reflect the reality of smoking. By providing honest, gruesome visual warnings, the FDA may succeed in preventing our younger generations from beginning the destructive habit.

More opposition arises from cigarette companies who anticipate this change will hurt business. Convenience stores, who are one of the biggest sellers of cigarettes, also expect to suffer financially once the FDA’s new campaign is enacted. When these arguments arise, it brings up the question of our society’s priorities: Health and lives over capitalist success. And as Michael Cummings has suggested, the U.S. is one of the least advanced countries in educating its publics about the risks of tobacco use. A CBS article explains the measures taken by Uruguay, Brazil, and Canada have far outdated the U.S. in the fight against tobacco use. Uruguay requires 80% of the front and back of cigarettes be devoted to warnings. And Brazil’s label images far exceed the United States’ in gruesomeness. Their labels—which cover the entire cigarette pack—feature dead fetuses, hemorrhaging brains and gangrened feet.

Based on research in places such as Canada, Brazil, and Uruguay, anti-smoking campaigns work in decreasing the amount of users in each country. The FDA hopes these new measures will decrease usage in the United States to 12% by 2020. In turn, this will allow the $200 billion spent on medical costs associated with tobacco use to be channeled to areas of greater importance, while saving lives. Though the new labels will not bring an end to smoking, I believe they will deter our younger generations from starting the habit. According to the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who was interviewed in a USA Today article, more than 2,000 children under the age of 18 start smoking each day. By increasing our anti-tobacco campaigning, I am confident we can decrease or prevent the number of potential tobacco users in our community.

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One Comment to “Graphic Warning Labels: A Fresh New Step”

  1. It will be interesting to see how these new labels affect the number of people who smoke. I’m not sure what it will do for chain smokers because I have a feeling they’re used to being told not to smoke. I do think that it might be effective in dissuading people who are not yet addicted to smoking or want to try for the first time.

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