The Food and Drug Administration has proposed for the use of graphic images portraying the negative effects of smoking on cigarette packages. This is part of a greater effort that the FDA has been working on for years involving graphic content to “scare” smokers into quitting. 

The proposal itself would “require tobacco companies to include graphic warnings on cigarette packages and tobacco ads with the aim of promoting greater public understanding of the negative health consequences of smoking” the agency said in a statement to NPR.  

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These warnings and unsettling images originally we’re proposed to go into effect in 2009 and replace the well-known Surgeon General’s warning found on all tobacco products. However, the tobacco industry was able to stop this from going into effect, stating in court that the images and warnings we’re scare tactics, therefore violating the first amendment, and the court agreed. 

This time around, the FDA stated in their proposal that these images are 100% factual and realistic effects that smoking causes. So they may be scary, but they’re realistic enough to be placed as a simple warning.

“While most people assume, in this day and age, that the harms of smoking are pretty well understood by the public, this is not true, and the existing warning from the Surgeon General that is currently on cigarette packaging has become virtually invisible to smokers” Ned Sharpless, Commissioner of the FDA said. 

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The goal is to have the general public realize that smoking cigarettes doesn’t just lead to throat or lung cancer. Obviously that’s one of the biggest possible effects, but in addition smoking cigarettes can lead to issues such as total blindness, diabetes, heart disease, and almost every type of cancer. In fact, according to the FDA, if no one in the world smoked, one in every three deaths caused by cancer, wouldn’t happen. Smoking alone is the number one cause of preventable death in the United States, which is why these advertisements are so important, the public needs to be able to understand the full scope of potential issues.

“With these new proposed cigarette health warnings, we have an enormous public health opportunity to fulfill our statutory mandate and increase the public’s understanding of the full scope of serious negative health consequences of cigarette smoking,” said Sharpless.

It seems like it would be a no-brainier to put these sort of images on tobacco packaging. The effort would not only help motivate current smokers to quit, but in addition would act as a big red STOP sign for any potential smoker thinking of picking up their first pack just to try it out. Teenagers being another major concern, would most likely never want to pick up a pack of cigarettes with an image of cancerous lungs on it to “seem cool”. The FDA is literally trying to say “no, smoking and preventable death is not cool!!”

However, it’s not that simple, the whole reason this hasn’t already been enforced is due to technicalities over the first amendment rights of tobacco companies. Since they are included in all the individuals the first amendment it supposed to protect.

“We firmly support public awareness of the harms of smoking cigarettes, but the manner in which those messages are delivered to the public cannot run afoul of the First Amendment protections that apply to all speakers, including cigarette manufacturers,” Kaelan Hollon, a spokeswoman for Reynolds American Inc., the parent company of tobacco brand R.J. Reynolds.

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At the end of the day, tobacco companies are never going to back a proposal that would make their product look more physically undesirable and less cool to the consumer. The “cool factor” is one of the only reasons cigarette’s are still relevant. The argument can be made that even though the public isn’t aware of the full extent that cigarette’s can negatively impact someone’s health, we all know they’re deadly, so what does it matter? Well, the concept of cancer, stroke, disease, etc. doesn’t seem like a realistic outcome when it’s simply written in small black ink on a cardboard box. We’ve all heard the same lesson about how bad cigarette’s are growing up, and yet it’s still such a large issue. So instead of continuing their hope that the public hears their message, the FDA wants to show you instead. If listening doesn’t work, maybe seeing the actual effects these small sticks of tobacco can cause inside of you will make a difference.

Advocates for this new proposal are ready to take on the legal drawbacks that will come from this and the tobacco companies. After all, cigarette packaging hasn’t been changed in 35 years, but then again neither has the preventable death rates in the United States, so maybe some modification isn’t the worst thing. The FDA remains hopeful, and says that the earliest we’ll see this new branding would be summer 2021, starting with billboard advertisements and slowly working their way to individual marketing and tobacco packaging.