Who said smoking is a fad? Are you a smoker? Do you know someone that is? If so, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has information and an agenda they want to share.
In an effort to reduce the number of cigarette smokers, the FDA will require tobacco companies to print graphic and explicit warning labels on packs of cigarettes, starting in fall 2012. These labels will include images of a sewn-up corpse, a laryngectomy patient with a visible hole in his throat, and an infant surrounded by a cloud of smoke, to graphically depict what smoking can potentially do to a person’s health. Did that make you cringe a bit? Well, that’s the point.
Currently, there are approximately 46.6 million adult cigarette smokers in the United States. That’s one-seventh of the total U.S. population. For obvious reasons, the FDA does not want people to smoke because of the potential dangers it presents to their health, but it appears that the FDA may have overstepped its boundaries this time in its efforts to protect the health of the American people. In a nutshell, the role of the FDA is to protect our health through methods of widespread prevention and providing warnings to consumers of food and drug products, among other things. But in this situation, the FDA is no longer simply providing a neutral, general warning about the potential risks of cigarettes. The agency is pushing its biased views of cigarette smokers by requiring these gruesome images to be placed on the cigarette packs. The non-smoker waiting in line behind a man buying cigarettes will now be inadvertently exposed to the images of sick infants and grotesque corpses, when he, as a non-smoker, has no intention of buying or smoking cigarettes. The point here is that these labels are no longer a general warning to the public about the potential effects of smoking; rather, they are a commercial advertisement of why the FDA personally wants you to put down those cigarettes and never buy a pack again.
Tobacco companies argue that the FDA’s requirement of printing such gruesome labels on cigarette packages is a slippery slope. What’s next? Perhaps you might find your next hamburger wrapped in a graphic label of a man having a heart attack or getting liposuction. Why hasn’t the FDA found the need to print graphic labels of a fibrous, scarred liver tissue on bottles of vodka? Maybe it is only a matter of time that we will see such impositions, but the line must be drawn somewhere.
At a certain point, the choice must be left up to the consumer. Smokers are paying as much as twenty dollars per pack of cigarettes in some cities because of the higher taxes being placed on tobacco; however, that hefty price tag isn’t stopping consumers from getting their fix of nicotine. Besides the recent increase to twenty dollars per pack, cigarettes have contained alarming health warning labels for the past 45 years. While there haven’t been graphic images of the dangers of smoking, significant labels describing the potential health effects have been there for as long as we can remember, including the well-known Surgeon General’s warning. So, the question becomes this: for consumers who have no problem dishing out twenty dollars for a pack of cigarettes that already contain health warning labels, are the new graphic labels really going to make a difference?
The FDA’s argument is that the labels are designed to discourage cigarette consumers at the point of purchase. It seems quite unlikely that a person who has been smoking for a majority of his life will decide to quit because of a few explicit images on his new cigarette pack. It’s even more unlikely that that person will look at the new labels and say to himself, “I had no idea that cigarettes are dangerous for my health and could potentially lead to death.”
If this new law proves to be successful in decreasing the amount of current smokers or preventing new people from starting to smoke, for tobacco companies, this attack on their product is one that could essentially put them out of business or, at the least, decrease sales by a substantial amount. Forcing the companies to plaster these gruesome labels on their products is unfair; through the repulsive images and graphic words, the companies- acting as the mouthpiece for the FDA- are essentially telling their own consumers “don’t buy my product.” Never before in the U.S. have producers or manufacturers of any other product been required by law to use their own packaging and advertising urging its consumers not to buy its product. Let’s remember, the sale of tobacco and its manufacture are both legal, and if the FDA is that insistent on preventing the sale of cigarettes, the product should just be banned, right? By no means am I advocating that cigarettes be banned- I think we can all agree that it would create the uproar of the century- but as food for thought, why are cigarettes legal while marijuana is illegal? If both of these substances cause potential dangers to health, and science has not yet conclusively ruled that marijuana is worse than cigarettes, why is it banned but cigarettes are not?
In the same sense, with the recent introduction of electronic cigarettes (“e-cigarettes”), the government could ban cigarettes and leave consumers with the electronic alternative, if it really wanted to prevent and reduce smoking in this country. E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, tar, or any of the other chemical additives found in tobacco cigarettes. Most importantly, e-cigarettes do not produce any harmful smoke that can cause lung cancer or respiratory diseases. So why doesn’t everyone make the switch? For some, it is simply the habit and routine lifestyle of buying tobacco cigarettes that puts off some consumers from switching to electronic cigarettes, not to mention the difference in taste, smell, and just getting used to a new product, which is exactly the reason it is unlikely that consumers will be deterred from buying their regular pack of cigarettes just because some new labels have become the latest addition to the pack. People- all of us- are afraid of changing our habits and lifestyles, especially when it is something that is a part of our everyday routine, our constant must-haves and addictions. For some it might be soda or greasy fast food, but for 46.6 million, it is cigarettes.
Until the labeling law is put into place, the FDA can only hope that its creative plan will actually be effective and reduce the number of new smokers and motivate current smokers to quit. As for tobacco companies that are currently suing the FDA for what they view as an unconstitutional law, they can only hope that the law never gets put into place. Through this new law, the FDA has stepped out of its ordinary role of providing us with warnings and preventative measures on how to generally take care of our health and instead, is getting in our faces and trying to persuade us about how we should live our lives- as smokers, non-smokers, and most importantly as consumers. As consumers, we have the personal choice and the right to buy whatever we desire, as long as the products are legal, without having anybody interfere with that choice. These graphic labels are the FDA’s way of telling us what we should and should not buy, interjecting its opinion of cigarettes, into our rights as consumers to purchase them. If this law is not found to be unconstitutional, it will only be a matter of time that the FDA and other government agencies will be taking over areas of our lives that until now, we held to be personal and private and without the meddling of the government.