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The Cigarette Labeling Debate

Posted At: December 8, 2010 12:51 PM
by Meredith Julian

June 22, 2011, will mark the beginning of the Food and Drug Administration’s new control over cigarette packaging. On that day, the FDA will select the final nine labels to be used on new cigarette packages after an extensive study of smokers’ responses and public surveys of the new designs.

Under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (Tobacco Control Act), half the surface area of all cigarette packages will be required to feature a full-color graphic depicting a negative health effect of smoking, in addition to one of nine new text warnings. A fifth of all advertising for cigarettes will be required to encourage smokers to quit through the use of similar graphics.

According to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, 1,000 children and teenagers become regular smokers every day and 4,000 try smoking for the first time. There are around 440,000 smoking-related deaths per year.

While smoking among adults remains around 20 percent, smoking among high school seniors is also around the same number, Sebelius said. A major goal of the FDA’s new oversight power is to decrease tobacco companies’ ability to target young people in their ads — the hope being that shocking labels will discourage them from starting smoking in the first place.

The FDA is asking for the public’s input on the current designs and is surveying 18,000 individuals to help choose 9 labels from the 36 choices.

“We’re trying to reach a range of subpopulations and find out what works best for whom,” said FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg a recent New York Times article. “When the rule takes effect, the health consequences of smoking will be obvious every time someone picks up a pack of cigarettes.”

According to Hamburg, the FDA will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the labels well into the coming years. She said the FDA would make the necessary changes if another label proved more effective than one chosen.

Other proponents of the Tobacco Control Act insist the new labels will rejuvenate the nation’s stagnant anti-smoking efforts, partly because the public will choose them.

“It is expected the new packaging will greatly raise awareness about the negative health consequences of smoking and will have an impact on those smokers who have become desensitized to the current warnings, as well as on young people who are tempted to begin smoking” said Jeff Ventura, a public affairs specialist for the FDA.

Though the Tobacco Control Act faces backlash from cigarette companies claiming the act violates their free speech rights, concerns have been raised on both sides about the effectiveness of graphic warnings.

“I don’t think there’s a negative side to the introduction of warning labels, but the warning labels themselves are extremely disappointing overall,” said Dr. Alan Blum, director of The University of Alabama Center for Tobacco Study and Society. “I don’t think I could select half a dozen [of the 36 choices] that would be meaningful and moving for the vast majority of patients I see.”

Several studies support the claim that scare tactics don’t work, including one from the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Health Canada recently rejected using even more gruesome labels, citing similar reasoning.

Despite such criticism, some believe the U.S. is behind other countries in its decision to include graphic labels. Currently, 39 other countries have similar packaging requirements. Many depict even more gruesome images than the ones proposed by the FDA.

“The FDA has been looking at the regulation of tobacco for quite some time,” Ventura said. “Studies, cited in the proposed rule about the warnings, show that these warnings have been effective in other countries.”

Canada, for example, has had graphic warnings for over a decade. Studies there, however, show the labels are only effective to a certain extent. Many doctors and researchers are suggesting that alternate means of government action would do much more than scare tactics.

“What we see with these sorts of warnings is that it does increase motivation,” David Sweanor, a law professor at the University of Ottawa said on NPR’s All Things Considered. “People are more aware of the risks. They are wanting to quit. But that has to be combined with services that make it more likely.”

Dr. Blum agreed.

“I think the warning label, of whatever size or design, is given too much weight,” Blum said. “A major media campaign exposing the filter as worthless and even more dangerous than unfiltered brands would do more, in my opinion, to undermine consumer confidence than any other single measure.”

Dr. Michael Cummings, chair of the department of health behavior at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, believes the label debate only opens the door for tobacco companies to lobby for the least effective designs. He thinks supporting long-term programs to help smokers quit would be a more effective option.
“The government should set a quota for cigarettes sold by companies so they are forced to meet our national objective for reducing cigarette use,” Cummings said. “If this were done, companies would raise the price, stop advertising so much and move into other areas of consumer sales that are not so dangerous.”

Even some private citizens are skeptical the labels will change public opinion. Many believe smokers will continue smoking as they always have, with little regard to the change in packaging.

“Anybody that smokes today clearly understands the risk,” said a man only identified as Robby in an online forum about the issue. “Those photos will do nothing to change the public [from] doing something that’s legal.”

Do you think the new cigarette labels will be effective in making smokers quit?

What other means of creating health awareness would be helpful in stopping the tobacco epidemic?

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