New cigarette labels: FDA hits Big Tobacco with a taste of its own medicine

The pen may be mighty, but the new graphic warning labels the Food and Drug Administration has unveiled for cigarette packs and ads on Tuesday demonstrate that photographs can be even more powerful. Finally, the FDA is turning the tables and using the kind of modern advertising techniques that tobacco companies have long used to spread addiction.

A close-up of a mouth with a cancer lesion, a corpse with its chest stitched up, a child reacting to cigarette smoke, an older man smoking through a tracheal hole, a shriveled and diseased lung, these images are far more wrenching then a few easily overlooked words of warning attributed to the U.S. Surgeon General.

That it has taken a quarter-century to replace the ineffective warning labels of the past demonstrates Big Tobacco's lingering clout. The tragedy is in knowing that thousands of lives might have been saved had these nine colorful graphics been required earlier. As it is, the FDA ruling (made possible by the 2009 tobacco control law giving the agency the power to regulate tobacco) mandates them by September 2012.

Naturally, tobacco companies have opposed the new labels arguing that they hurt the value of their trademarks and interfere with their First Amendment right to communicate with their customers. But clearly what they worry about is that the warnings will be effective — which is, after all, the point of the exercise.

While the U.S. has made great strides in the fight against smoking over the past 40 years, tobacco use remains a public health epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 45 million Americans smoke cigarettes, or about one in five of us.

The cost of smoking is huge. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. with 443,000 attributed to it annually. The FDA estimates that it costs the nation's economy about $200 billion each year in health care costs and lost productivity.

Will the warning labels be enough to curtail smoking? Probably not by themselves. The FDA's own recent study of the issue raised doubts about how great an impact they will have.

But looking at the ads it's difficult to believe that they will go unnoticed. They are emotionally stirring and deliberately provocative. Nor are they the only step the federal government and states have taken to encourage smokers to quit.

Higher taxes on tobacco products, restrictions on advertising and smoking in restaurants and workplaces, prohibitions against the sale of cigarettes in smaller packs, a ban on candy-flavored cigarettes as well as on cigarette and related merchandise giveaways have been part of the ongoing campaign, too.

Tobacco companies spend billions of dollars annually on advertising and promotional campaigns ($12.4 billion in the U.S. alone, according to a 2006 estimate). The FDA's regulations now present some fair and reasonable balance to those destructive efforts.

Will the regulations hurt tobacco sales? One can only hope. As one of the FDA's new labels notes, it's never too late to quit smoking, but the sooner the better.

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