Quick Takes: Graphic Warnings on Cigarette Packs

Requirement Infringes Upon Companies’ Free Speech Rights

Cigarette companies are fighting back against an FDA requirement to put graphic warning labels on cigarette packs. The proposed images — which include full-color photos of a diseased lung and a tracheotomy hole in a man’s throat — are meant to be overtly grotesque to scare customers away. Regardless of the fact that cigarettes have negative health consequences, enforcing a law that dictates the actions of private companies goes against a company’s First Amendment right of free speech.

The change was initially set to take effect by September 2012, but this past November, the U.S. District Judge Richard Leon blocked the required images from taking effect until after the lawsuit between the FDA and cigarette companies is settled.

Government-mandated anti-smoking messages should be factual and uncontroversial, but the proposed images cross the line into biased advocacy. The current warning labels on cigarette packs include hard facts such as “Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide” and “Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy.” The images that the FDA is pushing to implement, which include staged photos of corpses, are explicit and physically unsettling. They are purported to cover the top 50 percent of a cigarette pack’s front and back panels, showing even more prominently than the company’s own branding. The text warnings educate customers, while the images actively repulse them from the product. Judge Leon contends that some, if not all, of these images are digitally altered to evoke emotion and endorse the government’s “obvious anti-smoking agenda.”

It is clear that the cigarette companies have a strong case of free speech, as the images go beyond simply conveying facts.

-Revathy Sampath- Kumar
Staff Writer

Images Will Educate Public on Smoking’s Health Risks

Last June, the FDA mandated that by September 2012, cigarette manufacturers must add large graphic warning labels to their packaging. Five cigarette manufacturers claimed in court that the graphic warnings infringe on their freedom of speech, but the government rightly contends that public health concerns are paramount. The graphic warnings will offer an effective way to educate and inform consumers on the risks of smoking.

Since the Office on Smoking and Health was established in 1965, the government has taken steps to reduce the number of tobacco-related deaths. Despite their continuous efforts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that tobacco use causes one in five U.S. deaths annually. This is a sign that greater measures need to be taken to wean the public off smoking habits. In 2007, the Institute of Medicine, a U.S. federal advisory board, concluded that graphic warnings would give a better understanding of the health risks of smoking.

The current health warnings on U.S. cigarette packages are not prominent enough to attract notice. The text warnings are placed along the sides of the packs in small typeface, with the colors and fonts resembling the rest of the package. Forty countries already require eye-catching graphic warnings. The new mandates will not only better inform consumers, but catch the U.S. up with the rest of the world. Several countries, including Australia, have already faced lawsuits from tobacco manufacturers with the proponents of graphic warnings usually emerging victorious.

The current health warnings insufficiently warn consumers about the often fatal consequences of smoking. The new images, being impossible to miss, will give consumers a chance to rethink picking up a cigarette.

-Aleks Levin
Staff Writer

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