Five tobacco companies in America are suing the FDA over a new law that forces them to slap graphic warnings on their cigarette packages. The companies state this law is in direct contraction of their first amendment right to free speech because, “they can’t require a cigarette pack to serve as a mini-billboard for the government’s anti-smoking campaign” [Floyd Abrams, lawyer]. The opposing side states that “the new labels could deter young people from starting to smoke and give adult smokers a new incentive to quit.” [Kathleen Sebelius, Health Secretary]. The question I had was: do these labels have proven, scientific efficacy in stopping smoking or detering it? I set to find just what the link is between pictures of gnarly medical abominations and people not sucking on a stick all day.
Given that smoking is extremely unhealthy, I don’t begrudge global governments for trying to stop people smoking. I can, however, sympathize with the tobacco companies’ right to sell products which are not illegal without government pushing propaganda on the actual product themselves. A law that makes more sense to me is to require all locations selling cigarettes to have a poster beside the cabinet with some graphic disease ridden lung, but labels on the products themselves seems to go against my gut feeling that the government really doesn’t have a place in the marketing of private corporations. Make smoking illegal before doing this.
That rant out of the way, here’s what scientists and researchers have to say about whether or not these labels are even effective in stopping people from smoking:
Graphic labels are … probably … effective.
Well that was a lame answer. A lot of research done at the University of Waterloo in Canada (my alma mater) by David Hammond, probably because Canada was the first country in the world to slap these repulsive images onto cigarette boxes. The research states that by being exposed to these labels, smokers are more aware of the risks and think more critically about them. This translates to a direct increase in the number of candidates attempting and successfully quitting. The results were statistically significant, but IMO marginally. I quote,
Smokers who had read, thought about, and discussed the new labels at baseline were more likely to have quit, made a quit attempt, or reduced their smoking three months later, after adjusting for intentions to quit and smoking status at baseline (OR 1.07, 95% CI 1.03 to 1.12; p < 0.001). [Impact of the graphic Canadian warning labels on adult smoking behaviour, D. Hammond, Tob Control 2003]
This isn’t a dramatic increase in people wanting to quit. Odds ratio of 1.07 means (correct me if I’m wrong) that 1.07x more people wanted to quit after thinking about these labels. The correlation between thinking about the labels and the labels being gory medical images is very high … so you can make the link that graphic images lead to slightly more smoker quitting. Read more about it here and here and here.
I find this approach to stopping smoking to be quite interesting. Obviously the negative effects of smoking are so immense and proven that there is no way a product would be deemed legal if it came to market with this body of medical evidence behind it. However, there has been little talk about banning cigarettes entirely. This is probably because it would just drive it into a black market, purchased online and in other countries. This has the chance of increasing smoking and causing more organized (and disorganized) crime. We all know how that worked out before. By basically performing elaborate Jedi mind-tricks on the population …. governments are convincing us that we don’t want cigarettes – so there’s no need to make them illegal. Well played, Uncle Sam, well played.
Keep on breathin’,