Take your pick: Would you rather buy something with an image of blackened, rotting lungs or a mother blowing smoke on her baby? If you are one of 50 million Americans who smoke, you will soon be faced with this pleasant decision every time you buy a new pack of cigarettes. Yesterday the FDA unveiled nine new images, ranging from decaying teeth to smoke seeping from a hole in a man’s neck, that will be prominently displayed on every package of cigarettes starting in September 2012. The graphic images are part of a new anti-smoking campaign, hoping that in-your-face reminders of smoking’s dangers will make people quit.
The images will cover half of a package of cigarettes and a fifth of any advertisement for them. The new labels are required under a law that was passed in 2009 that gave the FDA the ability to regulate tobacco products for the first time. Officials hope that the new campaign will revitalize the nation’s anti-smoking efforts, which have remained somewhat stagnant for several years.
The stats against smoking are nothing to scoff at. More than 20 percent of American adults and 19 percent of American teenagers smoke. Every year, 443,000 people die from smoking-related health problems, which adds up to more than $96 billion in health care costs. Every day, 1,000 children and teenagers take up smoking regularly and another 4,000 try cigarettes for the first time. To top it off, cigarette butts are made with a plastic that does not break down easily, resulting in a lot of toxins from the butts being dumped into our landfills (in NYC alone, the number tops 10 million butts a day).
In recent years, more than 30 countries have implement new, more upfront labels about the dangers of smoking, but this will be the most significant changing in cigarette packaging in the U.S. since the mid-1980s, when the current warning labels — a small box with black print — were put on the packs. The FDA estimates that the new labels will cause 213,000 people to stop smoking in 2013, with smaller reductions happening through 2030.
Of course, opposition to the new packaging is already in full swing. In fact, the parent company of the nation’s second largest manufacturer of cigarettes sued the FDA, alleging that the labels infringed on free speech and property rights. A federal judge ruled that the graphic labels were legal, but a proposed restriction to eliminate brightly colored packaging does infringe upon free speech. The ruling has been appealed and is pending.
While it is impossible to say how many people quit because of warning labels, various studies have shown that there is some correlation. According to the Associated Press, “The World Health Organization said in a survey done in countries with graphic warning labels that a majority of smokers noticed the warnings and more than 25 percent said the warnings led them to consider quitting.”
“This isn’t about doing what’s pleasant for people. It’s about fulfilling the government’s mandate if they’re going to allow these things to be sold,” said David Hammond, a health behavior researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who worked with the firm designing the labels. “What’s bothering people is the risk associated with their behavior, not the warnings themselves.”