You can get garden variety health advice from the daily newspaper, the "health" section of most book stores, and of course thousands of web sites. I'm hoping to present thought provoking and maybe change provoking thoughts about individual and community health. This blog is not just what to do about health, but how to think about it. I'm looking forward to an exchange of ideas with readers. July, 2010


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Warning about Cigarette Warning Labels

Recently there has been a lot of media attention regarding new tobacco warning labels proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  The ads are graphic, large, and much more prominently placed on the cigarette packages.  Here is an example of one of the new labels:

This is an interesting story which has evolved over several decades.  For many years tobacco was categorized as an agricultural commodity, not a drug, and so federal jurisdiction came through the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the FDA.  Because of this arrangement, tobacco was supported as a crop, instead of being treated like the dangerous drug that it is.  Of course this was politically rigged by powerful tobacco supporters in the federal government. 

The tobacco companies resisted public pressure to post health warnings on their labels and advertising material on 1st Amendment Constitutional grounds:  U.S. citizens are not only guaranteed freedom to speak, they are guaranteed the right not to speak when particular speech harms their interest.  Tobacco companies in effect mocked the Constitution, by claiming the same rights as citizens and applying free speech protections for marketing a product killing millions of people.

Eventually, an ironic twist occurred when the cigarette companies decided that warning labels would provide them with liability protections.  The avalanche of liability suits was just beginning, in which people were claiming damages by the companies selling products causing people to be sick and die.  The companies could then point to the warning labels as a defense, saying that people were informed that cigarettes were harmful, and therefore the companies could not be blamed.  This argument got traction in the court system, so that very few of the liability suits resulted in awards being given to sick smokers.  While the labels provided legal shelter for the companies, in actuality, the labels had little impact on consumers.  The labels were relatively small and unobtrusive, and tended to fall into the background of all the other label material.  From a health promotion theory perspective, the warning labels were disconnected from other strategies designed to encourage smoking cessation.  The labels helped tobacco makers more than consumers.  This continued for many years.

Finally, in 2009, legislation passed giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products.  Here is a link for the so-called "Tobacco Control Act."  The provisions of the bill went into effect in June of this year, and the agency is just now working on the revised warning labels.  For more information about the proposed labels, click here.  While it is gratifying to see an aggressive effort to stop the dishonest marketing of cigarettes to the public, including kids, we need to be cautious about high expectations.  While the labels are eye catching and impressive in design, it is too early to know how prospective or current smokers will respond.  It is a rule of thumb that information alone is almost never enough to change health behavior.  Time will tell whether these new ads will be more impactful than the old ones.  I'm guardedly optimistic.


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