FDA Appeals Block on Cigarette Warning Labels


While some experts such as Evins and Sullivan believe the images will pack a heavier punch to smokers than the current warning labels, some health communication experts wonder how long the proposed fear-based messages will work.

"The point of putting these pictures is the shock value and research tells us shock value on its own rarely works," said Timothy Edgar, associate professor and graduate program director of health communication at Emerson College in Boston.

Most Americans already know that smoking is dangerous; the message that the FDA is trying to convey, Edgar said. But visualizing the harms associated with smoking will inform many who might find it hard to quit.

"I don't think people do know that one in every two smokers will die from smoke-related illnesses," Evins said.

The new package warnings are part of an FDA proposal under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which requires that cigarette packages and advertisements have larger and more visible graphic health warnings. While the graphics might dissuade some smokers at the start of the campaign, the communication tactic might not spur many to kick the habit for good, if at all, Edgar said.

"I think people are still going to have a hard time saying, 'Yes, that's me on that label,'" he said. "There's a physical addiction involved in this as well. It's not an absolute choice for many who smoke."

Federal regulators and health experts have warned for decades that cigarettes are deadly. But Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called the ramped-up measures "a timely and much-needed shot in the arm."

"The current warnings are more than 25 years old, go unnoticed on the side of cigarette packs and fail to effectively communicate the serious health risks of smoking," Myers said.

Experts Suggest Anti-Smoking Policy

The intended message will more likely reach younger adults, or those who might have just picked up the habit, said Joy Schmitz, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas medical school in Houston. "It might give them pause for concern or contemplation as to their choice of smoking when they see the pretty dramatic scene on the packages," Schmitz said.

But evidence suggests that for message to be effective in the long run, it must not only communicate the danger but also offer ways to help change behavior, Emerson College's Edgar said.

"Simply showing someone that there is a severe outcome or they're personally responsible is not enough. They need to know there's something they can do about it," he said.

Schmitz agreed.

"It needs to be combined with the anti-smoking policies, restricting smoking in the environment, as well as promoting effective evidence-based smoking cessation treatments that are available," she said.

Leading cancer groups, including the American Cancer Society, approached the FDA early on in the development of the labels and "were adamant about including the 800-Quit-Now number," said Thomas Glynn, director of cancer science and trends at the American Cancer Society.

"To be most effective, these labels need to be paired with an action," Glynn said.

The FDA indicated that the number would be included in the label design.

Although smoking rates have declined overall since the 1960s, health officials noted, that rates have leveled off in the past decade. About 21 percent of U.S. adults, and nearly 20 percent of high school students smoke cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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