New Cigarette Warning Labels Pack More Visual Punch

BY Jason Kane  June 21, 2011 at 1:10 PM EST

Graphic images of diseased lungs, discolored teeth and dead bodies will soon greet smokers every time they reach for a cigarette. On Tuesday morning, the Food and Drug Administration unveiled nine new warning labels (click the images above for a larger view) that will cover the upper half of every cigarette package starting in October 2012.

Replacing the surgeon general’s warning, the new images represent the first major change in the cigarette labels in a quarter century. The government first began requiring warnings on cigarette packaging in 1965.

The FDA released 36 semi-finalists last fall and decided upon the final nine after weighing the ads against scientific literature, collecting 1,700 public comments and analyzing the results of an 18,000-person survey.

“We know the rates of cancer are high for smokers and there are disfiguring consequences,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg told the NewsHour. “All of these pictures were chosen measuring people’s reaction to the images and their ability to recall them.”

In response, tobacco companies are threatening to sue the federal government for obstructing their free speech rights, saying that forcing their brand names to the bottom of cigarette packages makes them “difficult, if not impossible, to see.” The argument is part of a pending federal lawsuit over the labels by a consortium of some of America’s largest cigarette manufacturers – including Reynolds American Inc. and Lorillard Inc.

The images are part of President Obama’s 2009 law that gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products. Each illustration will be accompanied by a “quit line” for those who need extra help kicking the habit, 1-800-QUIT-NOW.
While the ads are meant to trigger a reaction from consumers, the FDA hopes to particularly impact children between the ages of 12 and 18 who might be scared away from taking that first puff, said Dr. Lawrence R. Deyton, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.

“An image that has an emotional impact is one people remember. And images that are shocking and gory often really have an impact,” he said. “Other times images that are more emotive — like a mother with baby can also have an impact in terms of motivation and behavior change. That’s why we’ve included both.”

The new labels follow the lead of several other countries around the world who have moved to graphic warnings in recent years.

Public health officials and anti-smoking advocacy groups praised the FDA’s initiative Tuesday, calling it a crucial step in bringing down the nation’s smoking rate, which has stalled in recent years around 20 percent.

“These new warning labels have the potential to encourage adults to give up their deadly addiction to cigarettes and deter children from starting in the first place,” said John R. Seffrin, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, in a statement.