Cigarette smokers shrug off graphic warning labels

Petula Dvorak
Columnist June 23, 2011

I showed them gruesome pictures of a blistered and festering lip.

No effect.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

How about a gray, curdled lung, marbled with black streaks?

Not a cringe among them.

“Okay, how about this one?” I flipped through my manila folder, past the gangrenous foot, the degenerated eyeball and the grayish, waxen corpse.

Here it is: a sweet, innocent baby, squinting in a cloud of secondhand smoke.

Shrug.

So much for shocked straight.

I got this ho-hum response while prowling the smoke-break alleys of downtown Washington this week, showing folks photos that governments think might encourage them to quit smoking.

We looked at ones that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is requiring on all cigarette packs by fall 2012 — a rotating series of graphic images warning of the dangers of smoking. There is a blackened mouth with sores, smoke wisping from a tracheotomy hole, emotional photos of babies and mothers crying.

The baby photo did nothing for Phyllis Wilder, who was on a cigarette break from her job as an office manager on K Street.

“How about your own baby? What if her face was on the warning label on your cigarettes?” I asked Wilder.

“You know, she’s been asking me to quit for years. And I’m going to. Really. I’m really going to quit,” said Wilder, who is 50 and has been smoking since she tried her first cigarette at 16.

“I’ve tried quitting so many times. But really, I’m going to do it for her now. She’s 14. And this time, I’ve gotta do it,” she said, as she’s said many times before.

Nah, someone else’s baby isn’t going to make her quit any faster when even her own kid’s face isn’t enough to slay the addiction.

I know. My dad smoked for 40 years. My brother and I begged him to quit. My mom woke up every day with headaches in the smoke-filled house. Dad would’ve laughed at a warning label purporting to be more powerful than his family’s pleas. Even his grandson telling him he smelled foul from cigarettes didn’t make him stop.

It took lung cancer, surgery, a relapse and chemotherapy to get him off the smokes.

The images that the FDA chose to use are pretty tame compared with the graphic tobacco-warning labels in other countries. The face that looks like a blistered and scorched marshmallow, which smokers in Singapore see whenever they light up, is especially gross. Canada has photos of dirty lungs. Malaysia has a foot blackened with gangrene. Venezuela has a mouth with gums blistering with pus.

Smoking is a nasty, pernicious and deadly addiction.

And smokers such as Wilder know that.

“I saw my mom go on oxygen. I saw my grandmother go on oxygen. I know. I know,” said Daniel Eagen, 36, who was pulling on a Marlboro red one hot afternoon this week in the alley outside the fancy downtown D.C. restaurant where he is a sous-chef.

“It’s just, I need it to relieve the stress from in there,” he said, pointing to the kitchen behind him, which was winding down after the lunch rush.

He has tried the programs, the electronic cigarette, the pills, the gum.

Warning labels, in the end, seem pretty silly to someone who has spent a lifetime wrestling such an ominous demon.

“It’s like those awful pictures of abortions they use,” Wilder told me. “It’s complicated. Yeah, everyone knows a dead fetus is an awful thing to see. But you’re not going to change minds with one picture. It’s not that easy.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius thinks the photos will help. The images are the first big change to warning labels since they were put on packs in 1964.

“With these warnings, every person who picks up a pack of cigarettes will know exactly what risk they are taking,” Sebelius said at a White House briefing announcing the new labels this week.

Maybe. But what next? Does that mean we get photos of a triple bypass on the wrapper of every Big Mac? Mangled bodies depicted on every new car door? Will military recruitment ads begin carrying images of legless soldiers maimed by roadside bombs?

Smoking has been on the decline in the United States for years without such graphic messages, but that drop has hit a plateau, with about 20 percent of Americans still puffing, according to a recent Gallup poll on smoking.

Heck, even President Obama quit.

The fear is that the message isn’t getting through to teens. I saw the generational divide as I approached people this week. Folks older than 30 put their hands up, cig still smoking in one, when I asked them about their habit: Guilty as charged. Addict. Trying to quit. Here’s my name.

The younger ones? Denial runs deep.

“No, thanks, I don’t want to talk. I’m not really a smoker,” a Capitol Hill suit in his 20s told me, cigarette in hand outside the Cannon House Office Building.

“I just do it when I go out. I mean, I guess I do it during the day, too,” said a 30-year-old blonde smoking outside her office. “I try to not smoke during the day. But by about noon, it’s impossible not to.”

She didn’t want her name in the newspaper. She was unmoved by the images the FDA selected. “Stupid,” she called them.

“Want to see the really gross ones that other countries use?” I asked her, opening my folder.

“Ugh. No, thanks,” she said. “I don’t need to see that.”

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