WARNING: New cigarette labels could harm independence

by Carly Loman / Beacon Staff • February 9, 2011

You take the T when you could easily walk, buy a venti white chocolate mocha with whipped cream in place of black coffee, and take a drag on a cigarette when you could be breathing in the clean (well, kind of) Boston air. Everyday we make bad decisions and while we should be educated about the consequences of our actions, ultimately we should be free to do what we like—including smoke.

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed new cigarette labels that will take up 50 percent of the upper portion of both the front and back panels of cigarette packages. The new labels will feature images alongside the stop smoking slogans we have become accustomed. According to the New York Times, all cigarette packaging will have a graphic warning label by Oct. 22, 2012.

But the 36 images the FDA unveiled do not help consumers make an informed decision. Instead, they use cheap shock tactics to guilt and embarrass people out of smoking.

Take, for example, the photo proposed to accompany the phrase, “Warning: Cigarettes cause cancer.” The bared teeth at the top of the box are yellow and decaying. A few spots of gum stand out where incisors should be and, most nauseating of all, an open sore sits on the lower lip.

Requiring companies to disclose the potentially dangerous effects of their products is standard. Alcohol and cigarettes have Surgeon General’s warnings and packaged foods have nutrition labels. But requiring companies to actively advertise against their product, on their product, is the government overstepping its bounds. I don’t question the effectiveness of labels like these­ ­— I question the morality.

As long as smoking is legal, people should be allowed to pick up a carton of cigarettes without being accosted by shocking images. It is the consumer’s choice to purchase what they want and not the government’s responsibility to do any more than ensure that they are aware of the risks. Pressuring us into making sound decisions is our parents’ jobs — not the FDA’s.

We all know smoking is bad. And we have known that it’s harmful for quite some time now. So why start with the graphic labels now?

No longer the vice of sophisticates and starlets, cigarettes project upon their users the image of an addict, forced to get their fix knee-deep in snow under the awning of 80 Boylston. We make many dangerous choices with little government warning. The difference is that it’s socially permissable to make some bad decisions; smoking just isn’t one of them.

Proponents of the labels may argue that it’s the government’s responsibility to discourage people from smoking so that their bad decision doesn’t raise our health care premiums. But contrary to popular belief, even the heaviest smokers are unlikely to raise your health care costs. As a matter of fact, according to USA Today, Vanderbilt University economist Kip Viscusi found that each pack of cigarettes smoked saves the country an average of 32 cents.

Smokers die earlier and, because of this, end up costing the nation less in programs such as Medicare and Social Security during the course of their smoke-filled lives.

Most smokers are not cigarette-bearing villains, threatening to puff pollutants in the face of unsuspecting children, and they are not stealing Medicare money from the innocent and deserving elderly.

Yes, smoking is terribly unhealthy for smokers and those immediately around them. But this does not sanction treating all smokers like our country’s nicotine-filled nemeses. Instead, the government should approach encouraging the public not to smoke, especially in the presence of non-smokers, the same way they promote vegetables and flu shots: With education.

Lay off on the spiteful on-package warnings. Instead, invest enough time and money in reminding people of the dangers of smoking so that they don’t want to pick up those cartons to begin with.