FDA's New Cigarette Warning Labels Won't Stop Smokers

How much will shaming do? People already know smoking will cause all kinds of illnesses, not to mention death.

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The images are so distasteful that television outlets reporting on them issued an advance warning that small children might want to look away. There was a person smoking through a hole in his throat. Another showed a stomach-churning picture of lungs made black by chronic smoking. The most jarring was the cadaver, with stitch marks on his chest to show where the autopsy had been done.

But does the Food and Drug Administration, which mandated that the ads be put on cigarette packs, really think this will make people stop smoking?

It’s not like the old days, when the dangers of smoking were largely unknown (and smoking, remarkably, was touted as a healthful enterprise). People know smoking will cause all kinds of illnesses, not to mention death. Many, many people try to quit, and even more would like to quit but can’t summon the strength to do so. And it’s not because they’re weaker than non-smokers; it’s because smoking is addictive. Once hooked, people find it extremely difficult to quit; a family member of mine quit decades ago and confessed that not a day goes by that he doesn’t want a cigarette. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]

So how much will shaming do? It’s like the people who go up to smokers—particularly those who are pregnant or have children around them—and ask, "How can you do this to yourself/your unborn baby/your children?" They know, and they’re not trying to damage themselves or their children. They just can’t stop, because it’s addictive.

There are ways to discourage smokers from smoking; making it very inconvenient is one way. I do have friends who said the sheer humiliation of having to stand outside in the rain to sneak in a cigarette was an incentive to quit. [See editorial cartoons on healthcare.]

But the best way is to make sure people don’t develop the addiction to begin with, and that means targeting youth—not high school students, but elementary school students. I don’t smoke, and it’s not because I have extraordinary willpower (I don’t particularly like cake, but put a piece in front of me and I’ll definitely eat it). It’s because I never started. And the reason I never started is that my seventh-grade health class was focused almost exclusively on an anti-smoking message. It was hardcore; it included not just images of how gross and unattractive smoking was (telling adolescents that kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray is sure to affect those entering the dating world), but how deadly it was. Our teacher encouraged us to harass our smoking parents, urging them every single day to stop. It worked. Hardly anyone in my class ended up a smoker, at least while in school.

Maybe the FDA-imposed images will make some smokers uncomfortable; maybe they will give that extra push to those trying to quit. But the best way to become a non-smoker is to never start smoking. And that means aiming anti-smoking campaigns at youth.

  • See editorial cartoons on healthcare.
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  • Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.