For decades, the federal government has accused tobacco companies of running a campaign of relentless deception in order to sell cigarettes and convince customers that their product will make you sexy, skinny, cool or whatever.
On Tuesday, the government unveiled its latest salvo in its campaign against these companies.
Tobacco peddlers will soon be forced to emblazon every package of their product with graphic new warnings that show what the government says will happen to you if you smoke cigarettes.
One warning shows a cadaver lying on a steel table, chest zipped closed by giant staples. Another, a pair of nastily corroded lungs. In another image, an infant is confined to an incubator and hooked up to a breathing tube. In one startling image, a man is puffing on a cigarette with wisps of smoke escaping a tracheotomy hole in the center of his throat.
There is only one problem with the federal government’s great campaign of graphic images aimed at combating the deceit of tobacco companies and rescuing us from our stupid selves.
The images are fabricated.
“Some are photographs; some are illustrations,” a spokesman at the Department of Health and Human Services explained to me Tuesday when I called about the new pictures.
The dead man with the zipped-up chest? “It’s not a dead body,” the spokesman assured me. “It’s an actor. It’s supposed to be a cadaver after an autopsy.”
The man with the wispy smoke coming out of the hole in his throat? “That’s a Photoshopped illustration.”
The baby in an incubator is a creepy drawing.
As for the corroded lungs? Who knows, given their track record so far? Maybe it is a real picture and that of a smoker. Or, perhaps they are the lungs of someone who handled asbestos in a Navy yard for the federal government. Or maybe it is altogether faked.
The government unveiled the bogus pictures at a White House event staged to look like a press conference.
William Corr, a deputy secretary at HHS, lamented the formal setting, saying: “We should be having a party to celebrate!” He went on to testify how the new pictures “tell the truth.”
Another government official called the tobacco company advertising “non-factual and controversial.” The government’s falsified pictures, he said, “speak the truth.”
Not that these government officials had to defend themselves or their campaign from anyone sitting in the audience section. Most questions began with a glowing congratulations or an emotional thank you.
“What languages will be available on the quit line?” inquired one of the questioners about the hotline number that will be plastered beneath each of the haunting images.
The gruesome nature of the pictures call to mind the deeply disturbing and bloody pictures pro-life protesters blow up and carry on picket signs outside political events.
A tiny fist, clenched as if around a finger — or in agony — ripped from its wrist, trailed by bloody veins. Or the unmistakable image of a baby’s face, squished and distorted and wrenched off its skull.
Few people find themselves exposed to these horrific images more often than reporters here in Washington, who travel the countryside chasing after political candidates.
When a bus full of reporters pulls into a political rally, these pictures bob up and down right at bus window level. A quiet falls over everyone.
Reporters recoil internally and give a shiver. They look away from the windows. One will invariably spit, “That should be illegal.”
Visually, in terms of repulsiveness, there is little difference between the tactics of the abortion protesters and those of the federal government. In fact, the only difference is that the government doctored its pictures.
And you paid for them.
• Charles Hurt’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.