FDA’s Grotesque Cigarette Warnings Images Are Ineffective, Have Been Found Unconstitutional in the Past
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FDA’s Grotesque Cigarette Warnings Images Are Ineffective, Have Been Found Unconstitutional in the Past

Research finds adding images to existing tobacco warnings has little additional effect on current smokers.

Bloody urine, rotten lungs, and amputated limbs are among the 13 images that will soon decorate all cigarette packages — that is, if the Food and Drug Administration gets its way.

The agency is trying to further reduce smoking rates by mandating these grotesque depictions on cigarette warning labels, illustrating the potential consequences of regular cigarette use. Here’s the problem: Their approach is unlikely to work, and it will probably just prompt another lawsuit that will cost the FDA and taxpayers millions.

As it turns out, adding images to existing tobacco warnings has little additional effect on current smokers, according to a BMJ Journals study and the National Centre for Social Research. Sure, there are some subtle behavior changes. Embarrassed smokers tend to hide their cigarette packs when they have a picture of a decaying organ on the front. But there’s no clear or obvious reduction in use from mandatory ugly labeling.

Nevertheless, leaders at the FDA insist that their plan will succeed. They often reference Canada’s supposed success with labeling as evidence that we should follow suit.

Stanton Glantz, a University of California San Francisco researcher whose program recently received $20 million from the FDA to study tobacco harms, commented on a lawsuit the FDA lost to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 2012 when it first attempted to require warning images: “Based on Canada’s experience, if the U.S. had implemented graphic warnings in 2012 as required by [Canadian] law, there would have been 5.3 [to] 8.6 million fewer adult smokers in 2013.”

But Canada didn’t even have that much success. After mandating companies display similar pictures on packages in 2001, Canada only saw about a 2% decrease in the smoking rate the next year, similar to the decreases seen elsewhere without such rules. And after the United Kingdom introduced similar imagery in 2008, it actually had stable, not decreasing, smoking rates for five years.

So it’s clear warning images don’t have the swift impact advocates suggest. They’re just incredibly embarrassing for those people who are already struggling with a very real problem that’s affecting their health. Who does that help?

Americans know what they’re getting themselves into when they smoke. To its credit, the FDA has already successfully educated U.S. consumers on the dangers of smoking.

In fact, when smokers are asked in surveys how many years are taken off life expectancy by cigarette use, they usually overestimate the consequences. Young people, too, are not nearly as drawn to smoking as they once were, which is why smoking rates in America among youth have fallen over 75% since 2000. Even for adults, the rate has dropped over 25%.

Americans have obviously become disillusioned with cigarettes already, so why are these grotesque pictures necessary?

The FDA is clearly drunk on its regulatory power. But if the agency wants to actually do some good, it should focus on what has already proven successful in reducing cigarette use.

For adults, that means allowing access to safer cigarette alternatives such as e-cigarettes. It’s true that the FDA has not yet clinically confirmed e-cigarettes as effective devices to reduce smoking, such as nicotine gum and patches, but some studies are showing they might be even more effective. And the recent incredible decline in cigarette sales is similarly attributable to vaping.

Ultimately, it’s already widely known that cigarettes are terrible for one’s health, which is why adding images to cigarette warning labels has failed to lower smoking rates. Previous FDA attempts to require images were defeated on First Amendment grounds, as labeling mandates do indeed compel speech that companies may not want to engage in.

Still, maybe these kinds of explicit product warnings would be worth considering if they did anything useful. But, without data showing they do, the FDA and taxpayers risk losing another multimillion-dollar lawsuit all for nothing.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.