The federal Food and Drug Administration last week proposed 13 new warnings that would appear on all cigarette packages to discourage Americans from lighting up. If the FDA’s effort is successful, it would be the first change to U.S. cigarette warnings in 35 years.
Smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths annually in the U.S., even though smoking rates have been declining for decades. An estimated 14% of U.S. adults smoke, down from more than 40% in the mid-1960s.
Among the proposed new warnings are images of cancerous neck tumors, diseased lungs and feet with amputated toes. Other color illustrations would warn smokers that cigarettes can cause heart disease, impotence and diabetes.
The labels would take up half the front of cigarette packages and include text warnings, such as “Smoking causes head and neck cancers. The labels would also appear on cigarette advertisements. The current cigarette warnings, smaller text-only messages that appear on the side of U.S. cigarette packages, have not been updated since 1984. The current warnings note that smoking can cause lung cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. These warnings “go unnoticed” and are effectively “invisible,” the FDA said in announcing its latest plan last week.
The FDA’s previous attempt at mandating similar illustrated warnings was defeated in court in 2012 on free speech grounds. A panel of judges later upheld the decision, siding with tobacco companies that the agency couldn’t force cigarettes to carry grisly images, including cadavers, diseased lungs and cancerous mouth sores.
Mitch Zeller, the FDA’s tobacco director, said the new effort is supported by research documenting how the warnings will educate the public about cigarette smoking’s lesser-known impacts, such as bladder cancer.
“While the public generally understands that cigarette smoking is dangerous, there are significant gaps in their understanding of all of the diseases and conditions associated with smoking,” Zeller told The Associated Press. If the FDA is sued, he added, “We strongly believe this will hold up under any legal challenges.”
Reynolds American, the manufacturer of Camel and Newport cigarettes and one of five tobacco companies that challenged the FDA’s original proposal for warning labels, said it supports public awareness efforts on tobacco, “but the manner in which those messages are delivered to the public cannot run afoul of the First Amendment.
Under the 2009 law that first gave the FDA oversight of the tobacco industry, Congress ordered the agency to develop graphic warning labels that would cover the top half of cigarette packages. The FDA proposed nine graphic labels, including images of rotting teeth and a smoker wearing an oxygen mask.
The three-judge panel ruled that the FDA’s plan violated companies’ right to free speech. The judges said the images were problematic because they were “crafted to evoke a strong emotional response,” rather than educate or warn consumers.
The percentage of smokers in this country has been decreasing significantly, and we see no reason to believe the FDA’s current effort will result in further significant reductions. Information on the dangers of smoking is readily available, and the current FDA plan is not likely to influence “hard-core” smokers.
Further, there is nothing to indicate that judges who will hear the lawsuit(s) that are certain to grow out of the FDA’s plan will sway from the notion that the plan violates the First Amendment.