Diseased lungs. Corpses. Rotting teeth. A man smoking from a tracheotomy hole. These are some of the shocking images featured in the Food and Drug Administration’s recently unveiled series of cigarette package warnings. The FDA asserts that these graphic warnings will serve public health by terrifying smokers into quitting. Commissioner Margaret Hamburg boasts that “the FDA [is taking] a crucial step toward reducing the tremendous toll of illness and death caused by tobacco.” But will these labels work? Will the lurid imagery scare smokers into quitting?
Second, for habitual smokers, the decision to light up is not a rational, well-considered one: The nicotine in cigarettes is highly addictive, and smokers simply need that physical “hit.” In truth, the urge to have a smoke involves many behavioral and situational cues not at all addressed by the graphic warnings. These warnings will not address the power of that addiction; at best, they may prove a minor annoyance to the smoker.
Third, while shock value can, in some circumstances, help modify behavior, its impact is very short-lived. “The point of putting these pictures on is shock value — and [that] wears off very quickly,” notes Dr. Timothy Edgar, associate director of health communication at Emerson College.
Yet the federal government continues to ignore such possibilities. Not only does the government not have a program to urge smokers to switch to smokeless products, they forbid the smokeless manufacturers to advertise the unambiguous truth: using smokeless products is far less hazardous than smoking cigarettes.
Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in America. We should be doing everything we can to help smokers to quit — and to prevent people from starting in the first place. But the efforts of our federal agencies to pursue such a goal are pathetically ineffective. The new series of gross-out warning labels is just another example.
— Dr. Elizabeth Whelan is the president of the New York–based American Council on Science and Health.