Should Tobacco Companies Replace Surgeon General Warnings With Graphic, Image-based Warning Labels?

Graphic Images on Cigarette Packagesby Nicholas Clark

Having embarked in an unfortunate addiction early in my life, I deserve the withdrawal symptoms and anxieties of trying to quit smoking. Acknowledging the fact that my wallet is losing weight and discovering that the yellowing of my fingers is not an indication of scurvy, I still struggle with the psychological and physical pains of this halt every waking moment. Sitting in my first college composition class, I am engulfed by a classroom’s sharp-tongued opinions on smoking; lumping “smokers” into one untouchable, sub-human generalization. As I anxiously bite my nails, tap my foot, and hold in my toxic smoker’s breath, I want to bite off the vocalized, animalistic faces that are blindly offending me. “I don’t see why they start in the first place,” spits the kid who lets his larynx do his thinking. “I agree, and it’s just agonizing standing behind a smoker on campus. Like, if I wanted second-hand cancer from your deadly cigarette, dude, I would have joined you,” rants the beady-eyed Mountain Dew guzzling boy.

After class, I hold open the door for my angelic peers and politely walk the opposite direction of my car to Dodge Street, where I can spoil my ruined lungs and inhale the exhausting vehicular smog; as a martyr distancing myself from my perfect, health-conscious, virgin-lunged colleagues. Proudly recognizing that my pack had lasted four days is quickly interrupted with urgency to buy a new one. I imagine the gas station cashier’s expression as I forfeit my license- disappointed and angry- as if I had just kicked an elementary school student or mugged a dog. The anxiety heightened from that simple confrontation does not encourage me to quit; rather, have another.

Nicotine addicts are well aware of the negative consequences that their actions entail. Suggesting they should quit their habits in simplified, layman’s terms is arrogant. It takes empathy to encourage and help someone through each step of the withdrawal process. Telling a hoarder to, “just get rid of it,” or hinting that, “Donna needs to hit the gym before she hits the ground,” feels like incredibly helpful, obvious advice to an individual outside of the problem. However, grim insight from strangers is perceived as hostile threat to those in the hot seat. Humans are capable of breaking habits, adjusting, and pursuing change with the help of optimism and subtle, steady reinforcement. With this being said, the federal government should not require tobacco companies to replace Surgeon General Warnings with graphic, image-based warning labels because of their unconstitutional intent and pseudo-beneficial results.

The nine new graphic labels that the FDA has proposed consist of corpses on autopsy tables, sobbing family members, men smoking through their throats, computer-generated comparisons of tarred lungs, cancers of the mouth, etc. (Melnick par. 1). A divided D.C. Federal Appeals Court discussed the FDA’s warning proposal on August 24, 2012. Judge Janice Rogers Brown, requested to make the court’s majority decision by George W. Bush, ruled the new government mandate unconstitutional and lacking the authority to establish emotional cues in warnings (Mears par. 3). Brown consistently reinforces his judgment across the board in this controversy. The FDA was also ordered to revoke the graphic requirements immediately, which if passed would have been enforced by early October, 2012 (Mears par. 16). Until the next piece of tobacco legislation is ruled, the FDA will be meticulously studying nations that practice similar labeling tactics.

It’s important to note that tobacco is a major contributor to the U.S. economy and states’ tax income. Economic studies of the industry show that strengthening tobacco policies [such as graphic warnings] will quickly result in job loss and significant reductions in tax revenue (Liang 171). This risk to government-funding reveals the FDA’s hidden agenda behind the new legislation. “The images go beyond mere information, according to cigarette manufacturers; rather, they convey the government’s anti-smoking agenda, which tobacco companies should not be forced to advertise on their products,” states Alice Park, staff writer and ground-breaking health reporter at Time (par. 7). Park’s statement is contextually self-explanatory and suggests that graphic labels are simply a catalyst to eliminate tobacco companies. An industry that has complied with numerous legislative regulations and contributes substantially to the economy should not be forced to poison their business.

Allowing the government to explicitly show grim images of fatality on cigarettes puts their foot-in-the-door for other forms of excessive industrial regulation. Take New York City’s last stab at preventing obesity, for example. On September 13th, 2012, the New York City Health Board approved legislation proposed by Governor Bloomberg. This legislation bans the purchase of sugary soft drinks in containers exceeding sixteen ounces in public venues. Sixteen ounce containers may be refilled. Sugary soft drinks exclude fruit juices and cocktails, milkshakes, and alcoholic beverages… all still exceedingly high in sugar content. Public venues exclude convenience stores and grocery stores (Debucquoy-Dodley par. 6). Simply put, NYC’s time and tax dollars are being pushed towards reminding citizens that they are on their third refill. Governmental parenting of adult consumers relieves the nation of personal discipline. Limiting consumption or revealing consumers’ fate will result in replacing Ronald McDonald with government-mandated images of late Ronald, the terminally obese toddler, advertising Chick-fil-A gastric-bypass assistance, perhaps, even the price of diabetes medications tattooed on an amputated leg. The federal government owes its citizens an educational warning of health risks, but not at the cost of free speech and the assumption that consumers are ignorant, reckless, mouth-breathers.

Healthy, long-term lifestyle changes are a product of support and education; a strategy that the FDA’s new warnings distastefully attempt. Faces of the new label legislation implement terror management- the theory of response through negative provocation and proof of mortality (Hansen, Topolinkski, Winzeler 227). From the register, to the workplace, to the children at home, the internal shame of a nicotine addict is exposed if this legislation is passed. Rather than criminalizing someone whom acknowledges their flaw, nicotine addicts should be left to acknowledge their habits and choose to face the consequences of them or change for the better without social pressure. Drastic corporeal realization results from psychologically-altering, near-death experiences, not daily glances of a stranger’s rotting gums.

Contrary to the claims of anti-smoking campaigns, explicit images of fatality and depression will not suffice as an appropriate and effective revision of the Surgeon General Warning. Governmental defacing of an industry is against the foundation of a free-market and contradicts the U.S. Constitution. Instead, the subtle addition of an FDA-regulated educational website, printed underneath current Surgeon General Warning, would be a long lasting, non-offensive alternative. The message that the FDA must employ to limit tobacco consumers cannot be measured by horrific images, sociological isolation, and tally marks; instead it must be a patient, unpredictable evolution of young, non-smoking mentalities. Such an evolution is reached through a thorough, preventative education.

Works Cited

Debucquoy-Dodley, Dominique. “New York businesses file suit against ban on large sodas.” CNN Cable News Network (13 Oct. 2012): n. pag. Web. 16 Oct. 2012.

Hansen, Jochim, Sascha Topolinkski and Susanne Winzeler. “When the death makes you smoke: A terror management perspective on the effectiveness of cigarette on-pack warnings.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46.1 (2010): 227. Print.

Liang, Lan. “Measuring the Impact of Tobacco on State Economies.” Cancer Control (n.d.): 171. Print.

Mears, Bill. “Federal appeals court strikes down FDA tobacco warning label law.” CNN Cable News Network (24 Aug. 2012): n. pag. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.

Melnick, Meredith. “U.S. Cigarette Warning Labels Are About to Get Graphic.” Time Inc. (10 Nov. 2010): n. pag. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.

Park, Alice. “New Graphic Warning Labels on Cigarettes Pass Another Hurdle.” Time Inc. (20 Mar. 2012): n. pag. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.




2 thoughts on “Should Tobacco Companies Replace Surgeon General Warnings With Graphic, Image-based Warning Labels?

  1. While I do feel this issue should be looked into for the sake of future generations, I do not feel like these images would have any affect on the habits of long term users. Just coming back from a recent trip over Thanksgiving break from Mexico I saw boyfriend’s fathers reaction to the images they allow on cigarette packages, he did nothing but glance at it and look away. If this is how he reacted the first time seeing it, it’s definitely not going to influence him in the long run. Great article, very well written.

  2. I am not a smoker, but the thought of walking into a gas station and seeing those images disgust me, even though I know they have nothing to do with me. I have grandparents who have been smoking for 50 years, and even had one grandpa smoke while getting chemo therapy for his cancer. I strongly believe these images would not affect the long time users. Perhaps, these images would help the younger generation stop, but even that is not a guarantee. Smokers are not the only people who would have to see that, and those images are not something I want in my mind when I’m trying to eat those snacks I just bought from that store. While I completely disagree with smoking, and think it’s absolutely disgusting, the government has no right to deface these companies. Smokers will smoke no matter what, because they are addicted. Some pictures on a package won’t change that.

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