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Cigarette Warning Labels: How Graphic Should They Get?

admin October 30, 2018

Recently, the FDA has tried to push a law that would require cigarette manufacturers to add graphic images to the health warnings already present on all cigarette packages in the United States.  As outlined by an article in The New York Times, a federal appeals court struck down the law last week in a 2 to 1 vote, citing it as an infraction on the tobacco corporations’ First Amendment rights.  As this ruling directly contradicted a previous ruling by another federal court, it now seems likely that this case could progress to the Supreme Court.

In her ruling, Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the District of Columbia Circuit explained that the graphic imagery would take the warnings beyond the level of a disclaimer and to the point of anti-smoking propaganda pushed by the agenda of anti-tobacco special interest groups.  She also claimed that the FDA had provided no solid evidence that the graphic images would actually dissuade people from smoking.

In the dissenting opinion, Judge Judith W. Rogers countered that the images were factual and in no way deceptive.  She also cited the tobacco industry’s extensive history of false advertising, particularly geared toward young potential smokers.  In her view, placing factual and accurate imagery of smoking’s damaging effects on the packaging would contradict the glamorous allure used in tobacco advertisements, thus leveling the playing field for both sides.

It does bring up two interesting questions: In regulating our food and drugs, does the FDA have a right to control how the manufacturing corporations present their wares?  If so, to what extent?  It does seem reasonable that if a product has been proven to have destructive and harmful affects with few to no benefits, that warnings are reasonable.  In our image-obsessed culture, where many a tweeting youth will ask who a recently deceased celebrity is to the public rather than bothering to google them, adding the imagery may be necessary to get them to pay attention.  But it does open up a potentially nasty can of worms.  Would it set a precedent allowing the FDA to stamp whatever opinion or image it wanted on whatever product it wanted going forward?  It does seem unlikely, as long as manufacturers maintain a voice in the legal system.

In another point, would the images actually dissuade people from smoking?  In the 1990s, comedian Dennis Leary joked that manufacturers could sell cigarettes in black boxes, marked with skulls and crossbones, marketed under the brand name, “Tumors,” and people would still buy them, as the smoker’s drive is just that strong.  However, it is possible that non-smokers could be dissuaded from experimenting with tobacco by graphic images of the effects of tobacco use.  Even light/social smokers have relied on those images to help them quit with varying degrees of success.

Does that necessarily mean the images should go on the packaging?  Or is that an overreach of government power on American corporations?  Is it a necessary countermeasure to the alluring advertising the tobacco industry spends millions of dollars on each year?  Or do you believe that taking such measures is up to the individual and/or their loved ones?   Do you think it would even do any good?  Please share your input and ideas in our comments.

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