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Athwart

Lucky Strikes, Then Lucky Charms

by James Lileks

The FDA wanted to put hideous pictures of dead people and gorge-jolting images of disease on cigarette packs, intending to warn us that smoking is bad for you. There’s one person still unaware of that fact, Mr. Harold P. Johnson of Grotte Plate, Idaho, and even he says, “Well, they can’t be good for you.” Other countries show rotted lungs on their packs, so we must do the same, lest Europeans come over here and sneer at our pathetic attempts at promoting public health. (Between puffs on a Gauloise, of course.) But to the surprise of many, early this month Judge Richard Leon said no to the FDA. Any decent right-thinking person might wonder if he’s in the pocket of an organization that makes a lot of money off cigarettes, and the answer is obviously yes: the government.

But his decision was not based on emotion or concern for The Children, which makes him a peculiar throwback. How did this all unfold? Well, the FDA got the power to redesign legal products under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009. It’s worked great so far — when was the last time you saw a family smoking? — but the word “Control” suggests that this is their first shot at timorously asserting some jurisdiction. Hah! Seen a cigarette billboard lately? No. Banned. The sweeping vistas of a Marlboro ad, with its rugged guys on rugged horses in rugged lands smoking ruggedly, were so compelling that hundreds of thousands of people moved west to be cowboys before figuring out the ads were intended to make them smoke.

And then they started smoking. Ads turn us into pliable putty. Free will evaporates. See a Luckies ad, and you walk with a zombie’s gait to the store, buy a pack, smoke them all, throw up, and think, “That’s for me.” So it stands to reason that horrible pictures on cigarette packs will change behavior. They would: You’d see a booming aftermarket in cigarette cases with a Playboy rabbit logo or Hello Kitty or a skull-and-crossbones. If you put the pack in the box and don’t see the picture, you probably won’t get whatever disease is on the box. That’s how it works.

But even smokers know they’re fooling themselves. Most believe they will quit, they should quit, because smoking is expensive, stinks up your clothes, drapes a blue haze around the house, makes you cough up a bolus of goo in the morn, and might put you in the box with the nice satin fabric and shiny handles. Besides, the packs already have warnings, and smokers know them by heart, including the one about heart disease. They’re oddly relieved when they get the one that says smoking’s bad for pregnant women. Hey, great, I got the pregnancy-warning pack. So I guess this one doesn’t count.

Packs used to warn that the surgeon general had determined smoking was hazardous to your health, and that was it. Everyone knew it meant the Big C. In their guts they knew it was true. But rationalization immediately followed: maybe not me, and surely not yet. In the meantime, brother, this satisfies. Sure, that last drag tasted like airplane glue licked off a pig’s foot, but 20 minutes from now you’ll get that twitchy insistence that says how about another? Hmmm? Sure, maybe it takes a minute off your life, but it’ll come at the end when nothin’s going on. They bargain: I’ll quit after the holidays. I’ll quit after this project is done at work. I’ll quit after I’m elected president. In the meantime I need these. They’re my only vice! Aside from sloth and lust, but at least the first makes me too lazy to do anything about the second.

Back to the judge: “It is abundantly clear from viewing these images that the emotional response they were crafted to induce is calculated to provoke the viewer to quit, or never to start, smoking: an objective wholly apart from disseminating purely factual and uncontroversial information,” he wrote.

Whoa: Can he say that? Modern discourse is all about the emotional reaction. Facts are useful, if they support the proper conclusions, but feelings are better: They’re subjective, which means no one can empirically disassemble your argument. Banning hideous cigarette ads because they’re intended to produce an emotional response must strike some people as the same sort of incomprehensible decision that finds gun-control laws in violation of the Second Amendment.

The FDA is also turning its talons to children’s breakfast cereals, concerned that cartoon mascots make children want sweetened oat nodules that will make them fat and give them diabetes. In the case of Lucky Charms, they may also want to study whether the ads encourage belief in Irish necromancy, as well as the impact of Lucky’s conflict-resolution style. The kids are after me Lucky Charms. Oi’ll build a magical bridge that’ll vanish after Oi’m over it. Might it not be better if he considered a fair division of his possessions, and handed out a pamphlet suggesting nutritional alternatives? And didn’t he have a clay pipe in his earlier incarnations?

In a decade it will probably be illegal to eat a bowl of cereal within 20 yards of a school, thanks to the Family Breakfast Adjustment and Cereal Control Act of 2021. Pictures of rotten teeth on the box, stumpy limbs lost to amputation. Punitive taxes will compensate for the health-care costs. Tony the Tiger will still be able to say “They’re grrrreat!” but there will be a disclaimer: Assertion of greatness not verified by regulatory officials. But that’s still a few years off. Crunch ’em if you got ’em.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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