Scenes of a graveyard and the words, "Smoking can kill you," may one day cover the entire top half of a cigarette package if the federal government's new warning label system comes to pass.
"Today marks an important milestone in protecting our children and the health of the American public," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said of a proposal to require nine new warnings and color graphics on cigarette packaging and advertising as of September 2012.
These warnings — now in a 60-day public comment period — could say "Smoking can kill you" or "Cigarettes cause cancer." They would be accompanied by images that could include a graveyard, a corpse with a toe tag, or a picture of diseased and healthy lungs.
The "bolder" warnings are intended to help tobacco users quit and discourage young people from starting, public health officials said Wednesday.
Some of the images are "very, very powerful and that is the point," said Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner.
"We need to make sure that anyone who is considering smoking, particularly kids, fully appreciate the consequences of cigarette use. And that means presenting the facts, directly and honestly," she said.
The legal basis for the FDA action is the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which President Obama signed in June 2009.
Critics said the proposed warnings are overkill and may even accelerate tobacco use in youth.
"Frankly, we think there is not an adult in this country who is not fully aware of the fact that smoking is one very risky activity," said Sam Kazman, general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy organization.
Changing the warning labels "is going way beyond what's called for here," he said. "It's what you'd expect an agency to do when it can't abide the fact that some people are going to make decisions that it, the agency, does not like.
"You know we've got a president who is known to be a smoker," added Mr. Kazman. He said when Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat and co-sponsor of the tobacco control bill, was asked about Mr. Obama's smoking, "his words were basically, 'The president is an adult; he's entitled to make his own decisions.' Now that's true, but it would be nice if the FDA had the same respect for the rest of the adults in this country as Waxman has for the president."
The proposed warnings are "worse than useless," said Patrick Basham, author of "Butt Out! How Philip Morris Burned Ted Kennedy, the FDA & the Anti-Tobacco Movement."
Teens are the primary targets, but the FDA and its allies seem to be completely unaware of human nature, especially adolescent psychology, said Mr. Basham.
"What the psychologists tell us … is that a good slice of the adolescent population will do exactly the opposite of what authority figures tell them to do," he said. Having a big image of a diseased lung or someone lying in a coffin on a cigarette package could be so perversely attractive that it could "boost smoking" among teens, he said.
The FDA's proposal was placed in the Federal Register on Wednesday. Public comment extends through Jan. 9.
By June 22, the FDA said it will finish its process of selecting the final nine graphic and warning statements. The tobacco industry will then be required, as of September 2012, to place an approved warning on the upper half, front and back, of all cigarette packages, and in the upper right corner of all cigarette advertisements.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. spokesman David Howard on Wednesday said that company officials were reviewing the 140-page FDA proposal.
"It is important to note that the legality of requiring larger and graphic warnings is part of our lawsuit that is currently pending" in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he said. "We're making the case that we believe this violates our First Amendment constitutional rights."
Cigarette maker Philip Morris USA said it would actively participate in the FDA rulemaking and public comment processes, while a spokesman for Lorillard Inc., said the tobacco company did not have a comment on the proposal.
The federal government first required tobacco companies to put the warning, "Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health," on cigarette packages in 1965.
Other countries have used graphic images on cigarette packages, but there is no definitive data that says they reduce tobacco use, Dr. Hamburg told reporters. That's "not surprising because an effort like this doesn't happen in isolation — there is usually a lot of other messaging and programs going on."
However, there is evidence that people have remembered seeing gruesome pictures, she added. "[W]e don't know if that necessarily translates into change in behavior," but additional research should be helpful in answering that question.
U.S. cigarette smoking rates declined for decades but plateaued in recent years. About one in five Americans, or 46 million people, currently smoke cigarettes. Almost the same number of high school students say they have smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days.
An estimated 443,000 persons, or more than 1,000 a day, die each year of cigarette-smoking-related causes.
"We have so much suffering that could be prevented," said Dr. Howard K. Koh, HHS assistant secretary for health. "This is an opportunity for the country and for the department in particular to reinvigorate its commitment to a tobacco-free future."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.