Commentary

How Soon Before Consumers Burn Out On Grisly Labels?

Even as the government yesterday unveiled jarringly grisly images that it will require cigarette makers to display on their packages, experts warned about the hula-hoop syndrome. The message may be effective in driving people to try to quit killing themselves in the short term but, over the long term, they could "get complacent about the omnipresent warnings," as Melissa Healy puts it in the Los Angeles Times

As shocking as images of blackened lungs, men with holes in their throats or a mouthful of rotting teeth and cankerous lips may be, consumers will eventually become as inured to the message as they are to just about anything except the 1-800-Kars for Kids jingle. "Outside experts said the government would have to vary the messages to avoid what psychologists call 'wear out,' Healy reports.

But, for the nonce, "These labels are frank, honest and powerful depictions of the health risks of smoking," says Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

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The new FDA labels can be viewed here. A Seattle Post-Intelligencerslide show includes some samples (Nos. 17-19) from Canada, Australia and Uruguay that are equally graphic, including the photograph of a wasted 42-year-old Canadian woman dying of lung cancer.

The nine images unveiled yesterday were culled from 36 candidates the FDA circulated for public comment starting last June. "The agency ruled out some far more disturbing images, including an unsparing photograph of a bald lung cancer victim hollowed out by her disease," Healy writes.

Consumers in countries around the world may be asking, "What's the big deal?," according to an AP roundup of global trends. "We are so far behind," says Michael Cummings, chair of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute's Department of Health Behavior. "We're a third world nation when it comes to educating the public on the risks of smoking."

Reports say about 40 other countries require cigarette packaging to carry prominent warnings on the dangers of smoking.

While pointing out that studies have found graphic images to be effective at deterring children -- "the tobacco industry's prime target when seeking new customers for its addictive product" -- the American Lung Association says it will work with the FDA to make sure the images are rotated "so that consumers don't become desensitized to their urgency and impact."

Some experts, such as Louisville, Ky.-area convenience store owner Myron Williams, say consumers are already blasé about the message. "Most people smoking already know the risk, so I don't see this slowing them down anytime soon," he tells WDRB News. Cigarettes make up half of Williams' revenue.

Some of the major tobacco companies have challenged the legality of the new labels in a lawsuit, among other things arguing that the warnings relegate the brand name to the bottom half of the cigarette package.

A spokesman for Richmond-based Altria Group, parent company of the nation's largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, says the company is looking at the labels and has no comment, the AP reports. Altria is not a party in the federal lawsuit.

Pundits and the public have not, of course, greeted the labels with universal acclaim, though I was surprised to not have found more complaints about the "nanny" or "police" state from prominent commentators populating the Internet this morning. While most of the featured comments on Duff Wilson's story in the New York Times this morning applaud the initiative, one dad takes it personally: "I don't smoke, never have, and I find these photos highly offensive.... I see them every time I go into a store, they make me ill, they are gross, and it angers me that my young kids see them everyday as well. They cannot read, they just see govt. sponsored dead bodies."

Writes another: "Nobody is forcing car dealerships to put pictures of crash victims in the windows of their vehicles. You won't find graphic photos of obese people on potato chip bags, and alcohol bottles don't have Charlie Sheen's face on the label."

Begging the question, why not? But that's another story.

You can vote on which label you think is the most effective at the Huffington Post. (The current No. 1 is the rotting teeth.) Or, if you're still smoking, you can cast the most important secret ballot you may ever cast by calling the American Lung Association's Lung HelpLine at 1-800-548-8252 or by signing up for Freedom From Smoking Online. 

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