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.