I’ve never smoked. My wife is a smoker and I am worried about her; I also think the tobacco industry is more or less despicable. Nevertheless, I find the new disgust-initiative by the FDA on cigarette package labeling troubling. If it’s ethical, it only passes muster in a utilitarian balancing formula, and even then I think it opens the door to government abuse.
Thanks to a 2009 law, cigarette makers must add large, graphic warning labels depicting diseased lungs, a man exhaling smoke through a hole in his neck, a baby near a cloud of smoke, a dead body, a man wearing a black t-shirt with “I Quit” written across the chest and three other ugly images to packaging and advertising in the U.S. by October 2012. These will be accompanied by warning labels with messages like “Smoking can kill you” and “Cigarettes cause cancer.” In full, stomach-turning color, the new labels must occupy the top half of the front and back of cigarette packs, and 20% of any cigarette ad’s space. The labels must also include the number of a national quit line and the current warning labels.
All this, yet the government allows the stuff to be sold. I don’t get it, frankly. If cigarettes are so bad that the FDA feels it has to use tactics this extreme, then it should have the courage to just ban them, like they ban other harmful substances.
The labels seem inherently disrespectful to me, going beyond warnings, which are appropriate, to punishing the cigarette smoker, which is not. Why stop at requiring horrible pictures on the packages? Why not packages with needles sticking out, or with skin-flaying acid on the outside? If the straight warnings aren’t enough, why should the horrible pictures have to be related to smoking, since the objective is to make smoking unpleasant? Be creative. Mandate that the cigarettes have the odor of cow pies, or skunks. Or mandate that the cigarettes look like little turds. Or have even more horrific photos: carnage from auto crashes, flesh-eating bacteria victims, Roseanne Barr naked. ME naked. Anthony Weiner.
The cigarette companies see constitutional problems with mandating graphic grotesquery that goes beyond informational warnings, and I hope they win their challenge. They won’t, because anti-cigarettes sentiment is in the category of gay marriage now: the power elites and the opinion makers have decided the issue, and no opposing views will get a fair hearing. But there is no good reason why this device, insulting to American citizens who have to be trusted at some point to make their own decisions based on facts, not manipulation, should be confined to cigarettes if the FDA and regulators have any integrity. Alcohol use is a scourge: why don’t Bud bottles have full-color pictures of puking drunks on them? The government wants people to drive less: why aren’t they mandating that autos be festooned with pictures of burned-up passengers in fiery crashes or photos of the crushed skulls of hit-and-run victims. Food! Have photos of 500-lb invalids on Big Mac wrappers! Put pictures of obese stroke victims, diabetic amputees, and Sally Struthers on Oreo packages. I certainly think that photos of destitute, hollow-eyed, slot machine players should adorn state lottery tickets, if cigarettes are going to have to be in revolting packages. But wait—the state wants people to gamble the rent money, doesn’t it?
If abortions are supposed to be rare, why does everybody scream foul when the anti-abortion groups use photos of late-term abortions? Following the logic of the FDA, these pictures should plaster the walls of every Planned Parenthood headquarters. Abortions aren’t a sufficient health risk, you say?
Tell it to the 50 million fetuses aborted in the U.S. since 1973.
I can accept the government warning us about risky behavior, and I think the government should ban conduct that it legitimately believes is dangerous or wrong. But manipulating our conduct—I find that to be an abuse of government power. And singling out cigarette smoking for such extreme methods of manipulation is unfair. The same methods can’t be applied to other health threats because people wouldn’t stand for them, which means that cigarettes are being singled out for the disgust treatment because they don’t have enough influential defenders. In other words, the government can use extreme, manipulative and disrespectful methods because they’ll get away with it.
If you dislike smoking, perhaps that’s enough to satisfy you.