What, No Dead Babies?


Yesterday 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 they need to be reminded good and hard. The FDA is suggesting a few possible illustrations for each of nine rotating warnings. Below are a few of my favorites.

By contrast, comic-book-style warnings like the one showing a premature infant in an incubator have an air of unreality that undermines the FDA's point, as do the secondhand smoke warnings that show smokers breathing directly into the faces of babies and old ladies. The illustrations showing 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. And I am not buying the second strokes-and-heart-disease guy. Is he having a heart attack or a stroke? The hand to his head suggests a stroke, while the hand to his chest suggests a heart attack (although it's on the wrong side of his chest). Maybe he's having both—or it could be indigestion combined with a migraine. He's got to go.

Will any of these work? That depends on what you mean by "work." Smoking rates have been declining more or less steadily since the 1960s, and last year the share of Americans who were daily smokers fell to a record low of 12.7 percent. In the face of punitive taxes, proliferating and increasingly broad smoking bans, and all the other factors that make the habit expensive, inconvenient, and unfashionable, the impact of more-conspicuous hectoring will be impossible to isolate. But it makes public-health types feel good, which is really what this is all about.

Unlike New York City's mandatory anti-smoking posters, the new FDA warnings (which are scheduled to start appearing on packages in September 2012) are authorized by federal statute. But tobacco companies have challenged them (along with other regulations dealing with advertising and promotion) on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the labels impinge on freedom of speech by commandeering so much of the package.