Will a picture be worth more than just words on a warning label?

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The FDA s proposed new graphic warning labels on cigarette packs are causing a stir among pundits and, of course, tobacco companies. The labels depict in lurid detail some of the consequences of tobacco use, such as diseased teeth and gums, and a man smoking through a tracheotomy hole. Yet the real question is whether the imagery will have any impact on the hundreds of thousands of people who take up smoking each year. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius noted the roughly 1,000 young people every day who become longtime smokers, and said, [The labels are] really to make sure that America s young people don t start smoking.

The FDA s decision to institute the nine new labels comes after consideration of studies in other countries where such labels have been reported to give smokers pause about the habit. But ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross would like to know what fraction of people who see these ads actually decides to quit. He joins ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan in wondering whether smokers and would-be smokers will actually absorb the significance of the graphic warnings. These images are no doubt more prominent, says Dr. Whelan, but are young people any more likely to believe that it can happen to them? We here at ACSH believe that a more productive strategy on the government s part would be to allow marketers of tobacco harm reduction products, such as smokeless tobacco, to truthfully advertise their relative lack of adverse effects in comparison with continued smoking.

Why can t both of those tactics be used together? ACSH s Cheryl Martin asked. Is there anything wrong with mandating these labels? They're supposed to be revolting in order to discourage kids from starting to smoke. Dr. Ross agreed, that aside from the slippery slope argument, as in what product will be targeted next? there doesn t seem to be a real downside.