Wait, Smoking Is Dangerous?

The FDA's new crusade

Credit: FDACredit: FDA

In November the Food and Drug Administration proposed new, bigger, colorized, and illustrated cigarette warning labels. The theory behind the labels, required by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, is that people already know that smoking is bad for them but need to be reminded good and hard.

Some of the images, such as the pictures that show smokers breathing into the faces of babies and old ladies, have an air of unreality that undermines the intent. The illustrations suggesting what you can do when you quit smoking—blow bubbles, wear a T-shirt bragging about your feat, clog your toilet with cigarettes—can be charitably described as uninspired. But the icky lungs, the autopsied corpse, the dying cancer patient, and the guy smoking through the hole in his neck get points for grabbing attention.

That does not mean the new warnings will have a noticeable impact. Smoking rates have been declining since the 1960s, and in 2009 the share of Americans who were daily smokers fell to a record low of 12.7 percent. In the face of punitive taxes, increasingly broad smoking bans, and other factors that make the habit expensive, inconvenient, and unfashionable, it will be impossible to isolate the impact of more-conspicuous hectoring on cigarette packages. 

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I believe KMG is spot on in her analysis.

  • ||

    Oops! Somehow posted in the wrong thread.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    I'm gonna go have a smoke.

  • rather||

    In the face of punitive taxes, increasingly broad smoking bans, and other factors that make the habit expensive, inconvenient, and unfashionable, it will be impossible to isolate the impact of more-conspicuous hectoring on cigarette packages.

    No more than you can attest to the impact of taxes, smoking bans, expense, and inconvenience. Why is the packaging an issue?

  • ||

    The packaging is an issue because it's coming from the tax-payer funded FDA, which spends money to develop these ads with no evidence that they're effective.

    And there's reason to think that these images are worse than ineffective.

    If Martin Lindstrom and the researchers who performed fMRI and EEG tests on smokers are correct, such images quickly become associated with cigarettes. Once this association is established, the images actually trigger a stronger craving: http://www.neurosciencemarketi.....dstrom.htm

    Quoting from the site (emphasis theirs):

    Cigarette Health Warnings Stimulate Smoking. While it’s accepted wisdom that printing health warnings on tobacco product packages doesn’t have much of an impact on smoking behavior, the researchers found that the warnings had no effect at all on the cravings of smokers. This applied not only to the rather subtle messages on US packaging, but even packages that included bold text and gruesome disease photos. None, zero, nada. Even worse, they found that the health warnings stimulated the subjects’ nucleus accumbens, an area associated with cravings! The researchers concluded that the warnings not only didn’t help, but triggered a stronger craving. The very warnings intended to reduce smoking might well be an effective marketing tool for Big Tobacco!
  • rather||

    Michael, interesting study but its focus was on smokers-the already addicted. We already know that the habit is so enslaving that not even emphysema, nor cancer will force the unwilling smoker to quit.

    The disturbing images are to discourage new smokers-especially teens. I don't know of any study which defines exactly what was the most effective cause of lowering the percentage of new smokers, ergo, my point concerning the singling out of packaging.

  • ||

    As FatherBrain points out below, this may backfire, enticing people who are not addicted: http://fatherbrain.blogspot.co.....-chic.html

    Regardless of efficacy, the larger question involves the proper role of government, specifically whether it should be discouraging the purchase of certain products, even when people understand the risks and still choose to buy it. If someone knows the odds for cancer are increased by smoking, and still chooses to smoke, then why should government continue to take money from tax-payers to spend on campaigns designed to discourage smoking?

    Another crazy side-effect is the increasing reliance of government on revenue from tobacco taxes. Parts of government have an interest in keeping cigarette sales high so they can keep those funds coming. Certain organizations within government may push to stop people from smoking, but don't be surprised if you get pushback from other parts of government who care more about tax revenue than stopping smoking.

  • Major Johnson||

    Do you think they will work as well as those commercials they ran about "this is your brain, this is your brain on drugs" ads that we used to laugh at as we sucked the bong?

  • Neu Mejican||

    Neat study, but, really, off topic.

    And I will re-ask the question...what's the problem with these warning labels? I mean they have a law that says there should be warning labels. How is the details of the design of those labels an issue?

  • ||

    Jacob Sullum wasn't explicit about this, but you're at a libertarian website, so expect libertarian concerns.

    See above for the "proper role of government" concern and the "house divided" problem that could set different government agencies against themselves.

    Economic arguments also play a role. Money taken away from tax-payers and spent on regulating and designing labels could have been spent on something they wanted. Resources that could have been put to use by the private economy are being diverted into a project with questionable goals (many people would rather their money go to something other than labels designed to convince people to stop smoking, particularly when the risks are common knowledge) using dubious methods.

    People are being forced to put money toward smoking-prevention based on a purely subjective, political concern of a vocal percentage of the population. What evidence can you find to say that money couldn't be put to better use elsewhere? Should more money go to alternative energy, law enforcement, humanitarian aid? Just pick some of your favorite causes and compare them to these labels, and think about where you'd rather have your money go.

    There's simply no way to allocate resources in an economically rational way without individuals making their own decisions about what they want to buy with their money.

  • rather||

    Yes the government should discourage new smokers, because most will be teenagers. Do libertarians want to pay more for cancer, emphysema in the future? Michael, arguably the money spent on preventing teenage smoking comes from taxation of the product-this seems to be an appropriate use of the revenue. Do you feel it should go to build roads?

    Jacob Sullum did not cite any studies on the effectiveness of smoking prevention

  • ||

    FTR: Smokers, on average, have lower lifetime healthcare costs than non-smokers.

    And the fact that "most [new smokers] will be teenagers" (citation needed)self-evidently justifies government intervention.....how, exactly?

  • rather||

    FTR: Smokers, on average, have lower lifetime healthcare costs than non-smokers
    prove that one first

  • ||

    Rather in indented blockquotes:

    Jacob Sullum did not cite any studies on the effectiveness of smoking prevention

    This was the whole point of Jacob's statement, "it will be impossible to isolate the impact of more-conspicuous hectoring on cigarette packages". Such a study can't be done with confidence, as you can't isolate this factor from all the others.

    It's simply your opinion that the government should discourage new smokers. Why should your purely subjective opinion be forced upon everyone else?

    Do libertarians want to pay more for cancer, emphysema in the future?

    You're presupposing that libertarians want to force masses of people to pay for things. That's not the case. A libertarian would say that people who want to smoke can do so and shoulder the costs of their decisions themselves. Government currently stands in the way of this, but that's not the libertarian's fault, and it wouldn't be the libertarian's choice to have government do this.

    Michael, arguably the money spent on preventing teenage smoking comes from taxation of the product-this seems to be an appropriate use of the revenue.

    Arguably, they spend much more of those cigarette taxes on other stuff: http://www.ehow.com/how-does_5.....nment.html It's not clear they spend any of it on anti-smoking campaigns.

    And even if they did, we're still talking about your purely subjective valuation of how money should be used. You want to spend money on anti-smoking campaigns? Why should that personal preference be forced on others? Why not just get together with other like-minded anti-smoking people and spend your money on it?

    Do you feel it should go to build roads?

    Libertarians, in general, do not want to force people to pay for things. If I feel my money should go somewhere like, I spend it on that. Others do the same.

    I might try to convince people to spend money elsewhere through argument, advocacy and even social pressure. But what I won't do is convince myself that my own subjective valuations about some non-violent, non-criminal cause gives me the justification to forcibly take money away from others (or use the government as a proxy to do the same) and spend it as I see fit.

  • rather||

    I am aware of the libertarian position but the reality is we don't live there-taxes are collected and they are spent.
    Ergo, smokers will likely pass on their HC costs to the public, and I prefer not to pay.

    We know that smoking is declining and whatever they are doing is working-my argument for the status quo

  • Big Cat Kahuna||

    I disagree. Purely subjective but I know no one who wants to smoke but is dissuaded by high taxes or warnings or let's-feel-good-about-being-healthy campaigns. People are simply more aware of the issues. Society has changed and government has almost no hand in that.

  • rather||

    Big Cat Kahuna, why is smoking increasing in developing countries?
    Why do you think it has decreased in the US?

  • CarolT||

    That's a WHOPPER. Absolutely everything has been imposed from the top down, by deliberately committing scientific fraud with our tax dollars. And the media behaved exactly like the CIA-controlled "Mighty Wurlitzer," deliberately spreading those lies and ruthlessly suppressing informed dissent.

  • CarolT||

    Anti-smokers are the ones getting the free ride. Your phony smoking cost claims, such as the CDC's SAMMEC computer program that they spread around the world like a disease, pretend that non-smokers' costs don't exist at all. Here's a real study that looks at both sides' costs. Table 1 gives the bottom line: At age 20, smokers' lifetime costs will total 220k Euros, obese peoples' costs will total 250k Euros, and the "Healthy Living" will cost 281k Euros. [Approximately $303k, $344k, and $387k U.S.]


    This Hitler-magnitude Big Lie about smoking costs is another way the government has violated our Constitutional rights by committing fraud.

  • rather||

    Carol, the study took data from the Netherlands and is based the cost of medical care on their model; a error to convert it to American funds without considering the standard charges for care here and care under a socialist system.

    Morbidly obese are similarly expensive to treat here but without question those who have contracted emphysema and cancer are the costliest in our system.

    A healthy person who lives to full life expectancy may equal the cost of a chronic care/early death but the most prohibitive care in the US is the end-of-life care. Whether someone contacts cancer at 20 or cancer at 80 their final care will eat most medicaid/Medicare dollars

  • CarolT||

    That's pettifogging. Smokers won't cost more than non-smokers just by changing countries. And this only counted medical costs, not retirement costs, where non-smokers again cost more.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    If healthcare were privatized, it wouldn't be our problem if others wanted to get cancer. That's their fault. But, with our new socialized system, I have to pay for someone else's mistakes. John killed Will. Let's put Toby on the electric chair.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Money taken away from tax-payers and spent on regulating and designing labels could have been spent on something they wanted.

    Who said "they" didn't want this. It seems anti-smoking as a public health program has broad support among the public. For instance, many, many of the public smoking bans recently enacted were voter initiatives that passed with large majorities.

    There's simply no way to allocate resources in an economically rational way without individuals making their own decisions about what they want to buy with their money.

    That's a pretty content-free claim.

  • CarolT||

    It's as fraudulent as an election in the USSR, because the government and its media accomplices have deliberately and systematically lied to the public for six decades, and ruthlessly suppressed dissent. Including by using "Official Anti-Smoker Approved Fake Opponents" who are guaranteed never to question their multitude of scientific frauds, including Jacob Sullum himself, to create the illusion of presenting both sides of the issue.

  • zoltan||

    They have a law...!

  • ||

    He didn't try to isolate the impact of those factors. Your point is irrelevant.

  • FatherBrain||

    Another drawback to these new warning labels is that they can backfire and make cigarettes cool again: see


  • Mrs. Lovejoy||

    Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?!

  • Colonel_Angus||

    I just took up smoking outside of social situations. I smoke alone now. Fuck you, life. And fuck you, FDA and smoking paternalists.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    If you live in one of these cities like New York or Boston, it will be illegal to smoke out in the fresh air. I like smoking alone, I just hate smoking indoors.

  • prolefeed||

    is that people already know that smoking is bad for them but need to be reminded good and hard.

    Nice Mencken reference, Jacob.

  • ¢||

    an air of unreality that undermines the intent

    The audience for the pictures isn't smokers, really. People can't see the things they use every day. Maybe smokers will note each message once, and feel that they're hated and rejected (more so, I mean), take that as given and go about their business, maybe a little more meekly or hopelessly.

    The gesture is really aimed at the non-smokers who'll see these pictures in the news. Knowing that the pictures are out there, whether they ever see them again or not, they'll be reinforced in their existing opinion that smokers are so unreachably deluded that no amount of Truth™ put right in their faces can stop them—or that smokers are so antisocially evil that they buy and carry around pictures of themselves blowing smoke at a baby.
    Either way, it'll soften them up for the coming ban, or make them desire it more angrily, since the people it hits will have been made to seem marginally less human, sane, and/or responsible.

    Good marketing.

  • Coke Zero||

    I saw the new warnings and I still started smoking back in December anyway. It's like the FDA thinks they just haven't gotten the message across to smokers that it'll kill them. What they don't realize is that we recognize that it's dangerous and are doing it in spite of that.

  • CarolT||

    What you don't realize is that the government is lying through its teeth. That's because those criminals have been brainwashing the public since birth with pseudo-science, invented in Nazi Germany, consisting of studies based on lifestyle questionnaires that ignore the role of infection. The Nazis could hide behind the excuse of ignorance, but today's anti-smokers and the US government CANNOT.

  • X||

    the obama smokehole rookie card looks like a winning investment.

  • ||

    hey - dont leave us out

  • ||

    people already know that smoking is bad for them

    Yeah, but all those kids in the fifties who called cigarettes "coffin nails" and smoked them anyway would have quit if the government had asked them.

  • ||

    My grandfather was born in the 1890's. My Dad said granddad never smoked because it was just obvious it couldn't be good.

  • ||

    Yeah I think "duh" when someone says they didn't know smoking was bad for you. How many brain cells do you need to understand that setting something on fire and then inhaling the fumes isn't good for you?

  • Brett L||

    This is why I only sniff glue.

  • CarolT||

    He probably got his "science" from the Rev. George Trask, who founded the anti-smokers' hallowed scientific technique of pulling numbers straight out of their behinds. In 1851, in the absence of anything resembling a database, Rev. Trask proclaimed, "It is computed that 20,000 persons every year, in America, go to their grave from the use of tobacco." (Temperance. Weekly Eagle, Brattleboro, Vt., Jun. 23, 1851.) "Rev. George Trask asserts that sleeping with a tobacco consumer actually affects the health of a person who does not use the article. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal so far endorses his opinion as to say, 'This had not before occurred to us, but on examination of the facts [sic], there appears some reason in the statement." (Kenosha Telegraph, Nov. 19, 1852.) And his connections at Harvard and Yale built the anti-smoking political machine.


  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    So, you're arguing that smoking isn't bad for you. Just think about it. You're taking something which contains known poisons, lighting it on fire (probably creating carbon monoxide, a known poison) and inhaling it. Plus all the additives they put in cigarettes, at least some of which aren't very good for you.

    And, if they weren't bad, wouldn't there be a number of studies indicating so? Even if they were biased, I would expect some.

  • Bradley||

    That's nothing. In Canada, our cigarette packs have pictures of diseased lungs and shit on them.

    And since introducing those lurid death porn warning labels, smoking rates have declined. So the government's plan is working! QED

  • ||

    the diseased lungs i get, but why would a cigarette pack have a picture of shit on it ?

  • George V||

    Perhaps people like a smoke when they take a dump.

  • Spazmo||

    Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health

    As opposed to quitting smoking before, which made no difference.

  • ||

    And if you don't quit now, you might as well keep fuckin' going.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    Can it really be two decades since Dennis Leary's deathless disquisition on the bigger-warning-labels movement?

    Like the problem is we just haven't noticed yet. Right? Like he's going to get his way and all of the sudden smokers around the world are going to be going, "Yeah, Bill, I've got some cigarettes.. HOLY SHIT! These things are bad for you! Shit, I thought they were good for you! I thought they had Vitamin C in them and stuff!" You fucking dolt! Doesn't matter how big the warnings are. You could have cigarettes that were called the warnings. You could have cigarettes that come in a black pack, with a skull and a cross bone on the front, called "Tumors," and smokers would be lined up around the block going, "I can't wait to get my hands on these fucking things! I bet you get a tumor as soon as you light up! Numm Numm Numm Numm Numm" Doesn't matter how big the warnings are or how much they cost. Keep raising the prices, we'll break into your houses to get the fucking cigarettes, ok!? They're a drug, we're addicted, ok!? Numm Numm Numm Numm Numm!
  • ||

    That was a classic bit...

  • Brett L||

    Dude. Bill Hicks was doing that bit earlier and funnier.

  • George V||

    You are too kind, Brett. Leary stole it from Hicks.

  • George V||

    You are too kind, Brett. Leary stole it from Hicks.

  • ||

    Just started reading Sullum's For Your Own Good a few days ago. One thing I didn't realize is how proud and long the history of anti-smoking hysteria really is. Royalty and public officers have been tinkering with various warnings, taxes, campaigns, and prohibitions against smokers since the day American Indians taught us exactly how awesome tobacco is.

    He cites sources well back into the 16th and 17th centuries that sound remarkably like the same crap we still hear today.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Yeah, I think I remember reading something about King James I getting bent out of shape about tobacco use among the nobility. Considering he wasn't coming up with any alternatives to make Virginia profitable, he probably should have been grateful.

  • ||

    Has anyone ever seen the movie "Thank You for Smoking"? same exact issue, presented reasonably fairly, with a good conclusion. Watch it, it's hilarious.

  • ||

    Yeah, good flick.

  • Jim||

    Great book, also, and the hilarious thing is, it's written by Christopher Buckley, the offspring of William F.

  • CarolT||

    It's Yale propaganda to brainwash us with their self-serving official lies, namely cliches about people who work for the tobacco companies. But they don't tell you that the anti-smokers, including those loyal Yalies the Cullmans, took over the tobacco industry many decades ago to prevent any well-funded opposition.


  • George V||

  • ||

    bastards, now I want to go have a smoke. Think I will, even though I quit.

  • George V||

    Smoke one of those funny cigarettes.

  • ||

    If they can photoshop smoke coming out of a hole in your throat why can't they photoshop a cure for cancer?

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Because that isn't photoshop. They seriously cut holes in people's throats when they have cancer, and people still smoke afterwards. And smoke comes out...

  • ||

    If they want to impact people, maybe they should print links to research on second hand smoke, since there are tons of people out there that don't believe it is dangerous at all. Maybe not only that, but one of those scannable links so they can go straight there on their phone.

  • CarolT||

    It's all deliberate, systematic fraud, based on falsely blaming secondhand smoke for diseases that are really caused by infection. Passive smokers are more likely to have been exposed to those infections, for socioeconomic reasons, and the anti-smokers' bogus studies all ignore the role of infection in order to cynically exploit this.

  • Gregory Smith||

    Second-hand smoke? Now they're talking about third-hand smoke! The health Nazis are crazy!


  • Rock Action ||

    Anecdotal: Gruesome NY public health ads had a tangential effect on my quitting smoking (I speak as a one to two pack or more a day guy) after fifteen years. It wasn't the impetus, nor the sustenance to keep going, but I remember them and use them. Holes in the throat from emaciated cancer victims captured in black and white photography are images I won't soon forget. That's all I can say.

  • CarolT||

    The anti-smokers deliberately commit scientific fraud by blaming smoking for laryngeal cancers that are really caused by HPV. Their studies ignore this infection, and merely compare the rates in smokers versus non-smokers, when smokers are more likely to have been exposed to this virus.


    Obviously you're one of the gullible, childlike people who believe the government would never lie to them.

  • Rock Action ||

    You really should lurk moar, you conspiratorial whack job.

  • kosmodisk||

    Cosmodisc, all the back and low back pain for people, designed to reach active çözüm.Bu universal comfort, fully adjustable and suitable for use with clothing ... Cosmodisc a vital investment for your health! Reliable, efficient

  • ||

    The bigger issue here is whether or not people should tell other people how to live. Doing so is sign of disrespect. If we can't make our own choices then why have individual rights? People who are for big government don't believe in freedom because they think people are unfit to run their own lives. This is a cruel and hateful attitude that demeans people and turns them into slaves of the state. Are cigarette smokers slaves of the state? Are they forced to look at ugly pictures? Yes. Are they forced to pay enormous taxes? Yes. Are they treated like 2nd class citizens? Yes. We need to accept the dignity of people's choices and lives. This country is not about controlling others, it is about reaching our own potential. If you want to control people, set the way-back machine for Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, you'll fit right in there.

  • Neu Mejican||

    The bigger issue here is whether or not people should tell other people how to live. Doing so is sign of disrespect. If we can't make our own choices then why have individual rights?

    Given that this is a post about informational labels on a product, I am not sure your comment is on target. How is providing information telling people "how to live"?

  • Marc St. Stephen||

    This article is not about "Information labels on a product", it's about a federal agency using taxpayer dollars to both create pictures and force private companies to put them on their products, and those compaines passing their additional costs, of course, on to the consumer - and for what? It's not new information. it's to satisfy smoke-hating fools and to piss off smokers.

    Now, if we can just get our new Conservative US House to continue cutting the budget by defunding THIS sort of shit, they just might prove their worth.

  • CarolT||

    The anti-smokers commit flagrant scientific fraud by ignoring more than 50 studies which show that human papillomaviruses cause at least 1/4 of non-small cell lung cancers. Smokers and passive smokers are more likely to have been exposed to this virus for socioeconomic reasons. And the anti-smokers' studies are all based on lifestyle questionnaires, so they're cynically DESIGNED to blame tobacco for all those extra lung cancers that are really caused by HPV. And they commit the same type of fraud with every disease they blame on tobacco.


    And, all their so-called "independent" reports were ring-led by the same guy, Jonathan M. Samet, including the Surgeon General Reports, the EPA report, the IARC report, and the ASHRAE report, and he's now the chairman of the FDA Committee on Tobacco. He and his politically privileged clique exclude all the REAL scientists from their echo chamber. That's how they make their reports "unanimous!"


    For the government to commit fraud to deprive us of our liberties is automatically a violation of our Constitutional rights to the equal protection of the laws, just as much as if it purposely threw innocent people in prison. And for the government to spread lies about phony smoking dangers is terrorism, no different from calling in phony bomb threats.

  • observer||

    Thanks, CarolT. You are a just punishment for wasting time reading the comments here.

  • ||

    I'm always baffled when I read some of the comments for many of the stories in here. I find it disconcerting that there seem to be so many who remain under the delusion that the truth of things counts for something with respect to the issues which constitute the national debate in this country. There still seem to be many people who are surprised to learn that vast majority of our leaders are corrupt, self serving and evil and that the players who determine, dominate and dictate the agenda for the rest of society, seek obfuscation and confusion and to impede understanding.

  • Holy Cow||

    Wait! What? A Reason article and subsequent thread re: loss of freedom and yet: WHY HAS NO ONE MENTIONED CHRISTFAG CONSERVATIVES OR THE MORAL MAJORITY?!?!

    I mean, aren't Scripture-thumpers the greatest threat to our libert--

    What? Secular Liberals are behind the smoking bans. Well, that surely spoils the narrative once again.

    But surely Christfags are behind gun control and censoring incendiary speech, right? They're not?!

    This makes no sense, no sense at all, according to The Narrative.

  • ||

    i don't care for either. the people on the left who support the smoking ban, gun control, and thought crime laws can kiss my ass just as fast as the "moral majority" theocrats on the right who run their mouth about "god in schools", warmongering, and hating "homos" and science.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    To be fair, the people on the left support warmongering, too, as long as it's their own guy doing it.

  • basket puma pas cher||

    i know

  • CarolT||

    Dennis G. Smith, the head of the Wisconsin DHHS brought in by Gov. Scott Walker, is a health fascist fanatic. As head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 2007, Smith approved West Virginia's intrusive program of meddling in peoples' lives. They forced people to submit to government dictation of their eating habits, to quit smoking and lose weight, or else have their prescription drug benefits cut. They were made to submit to quack ideology or be deprived of real medicine! Here are real death panels, as deployed by Republicans!



    And Smith was a so-called expert at the Heritage Foundation, funded by the Koch brothers, as is Reason. And the Obama health plan makes the same kind of charlatanism a required part of every approved health insurance plan. It proves that the Republicans and the Democrats have conspired together to force a totalitarian dictatorship on us!

  • Someguy||

    I can't believe this is "reason" haha, people here still accept that smoking is absolutely undeniably unhealthy. How come you never question the studies? I'm just saying I thought we were using our "free minds" here. Heres some links.


  • foxxy||

    I think the new packs will encourage kids to smoke not discourage them.

  • قبلة الوداع||

    ThaNk U

  • دليل||


  • geqian||

    ThAnK U

  • guorizi||

    it is perfect


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