It's not unusual for the federal government to provoke widespread retching among its citizens, but it rarely does so intentionally. The new warning labels required on cigarette packs, however, have that goal. Designed to evoke disgust with smoking, they may also induce revulsion at excessive uses of power.
The old cigarette warnings inform consumers of straightforward facts, such as: "Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy," and "Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health." Thanks in part to such labels, Americans today fully grasp that smoking is unsafe.
But the point of the new labels is not to ensure that potential and actual smokers understand the hazards of the habit and make an informed choice. The point is to get people to avoid cigarettes whether they want to or not.
The Food and Drug Administration finds it intolerable that despite all the efforts to stamp out smoking—through tobacco taxes, advertising restrictions, educational campaigns, and smoking bans—nearly 50 million Americans continue to puff away. The hope is that repeated assaults with nauseating photos will kill the urge.
So anyone electing to smoke will have to run a gauntlet of horrors: a corpse, a diseased lung, rotting gums, and a smoker exhaling through a tracheotomy hole.
All this is made possible thanks to legislation passed in 2009 and signed by President Barack Obama. If it sounds like the sort of bossy, intrusive, big-government approach championed by Democrats, it is. But it passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses, with most Senate Republicans in support.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius imagines that the FDA is filling an unfortunate information gap. With these labels, she says, "every person who picks up a pack of cigarettes is going to know exactly what risk they're taking."
By "every person," she means every person who's been trapped at the bottom of a well for the past 50 years. Everyone else already knew. Cigarette companies have had to provide health warnings since the 1960s. The current labels allow no fond illusions about the fate awaiting tobacco addicts.
Sebelius apparently thinks the health information has been widely overlooked. Not to worry. Vanderbilt University law professor W. Kip Viscusi has found that smokers greatly overestimate the risk of dying from ailments caused by tobacco. If the government wanted to make sure that Americans were accurately informed, it would have to tell them smoking is considerably less dangerous than they assume.
Our leaders think that since stark facts haven't done enough to deter tobacco use, scary images are in order. The FDA predicts that by 2013, the new warnings will diminish the total number of smokers in the United States by 213,000.
Contain your excitement. The agency admits that the overall effect is "highly uncertain" and that its estimate could be way off. Even if its forecast comes true, the change would cut the prevalence of smoking by less than one-half of 1 percent.
As it happens, there is not much reason to expect even this microscopic reduction to materialize. Last year, researchers commissioned by the FDA exposed adults and teens to such images to assess the likely impact. Despite the emotional punch of the pictures, they didn't seem to induce adults to stop smoking or deter teens from starting.
Based on the experience of other countries that have tried hideous photos, including Canada, Britain, and Australia, Viscusi sees no grounds for optimism. "Smoking rates decline after the warnings but at the same rate as they did before the advent of warnings," he told me. "The key for judging whether there is likely to be an effect is whether the warnings shifted the trend in smoking rates in these other countries, and they did not."
Why not? Maybe because people already knew the risks. Maybe because most smokers enjoy tobacco enough not to care. Maybe because people soon learn to ignore the nasty pictures the way they tune out other warning messages.
The likely ineffectuality of this mandate does not discourage anti-tobacco crusaders. Its basic character, however, should spur everyone else to ask what business the federal government has interfering with a transaction between legal sellers and informed buyers who are minding their own business.
The new labels thrust the government further into gratuitous regulation of personal behavior, motivated less by medical concerns than moralism. Now, that's ugly.
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