A Heavier Warning: Cigarette Boxes Will Soon Display Evidence of Ill Effects

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Ranit Mishori
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Coming soon to the lives of American smokers: cigarette labels that go far beyond a simple warning.

Imagine gruesome color photographs showing a mouth riddled with cancer, lungs blackened, a foot rotten with gangrene. If the images sound sickening, well, that's the point.

Under a law signed by President Obama on June 22 -- the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act -- tobacco companies will be required to cover 50 percent of the front and rear panels of cigarette packages with color graphics showing what happens when you smoke and bold, specific labels saying such things as:

"WARNING: Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease."

"WARNING: Tobacco smoke can harm your children."

"WARNING: Smoking can kill you."

The first U.S.-mandated label in 1965 tentatively suggested "Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health." Although the language changed over time, critics have long dismissed U.S. labeling as anemic and ineffective.

Indeed, the inspiration for the new labeling standards comes from abroad. Canada started the trend in 2000 with a label that showed a picture of mouth cancer. "It's the one that smokers remember more than anything else. Even after nine years," says David Hammond, a researcher from the Department of Health Studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Since then, he says, more than two dozen countries have picked up on the idea.

A sampling of how explicit the labels can be: Malaysia's cigarette packs bear a photo of a diseased lung; some in Brazil show a dead fetus lying near cigarette butts; Thailand's show a person with a hole in his throat, to warn about throat cancer; in New Zealand, it's a gangrenous foot.

Compare these with the American warning label, which has not changed since 1985: no images, and only a small-type surgeon general's warning that states: "smoking by pregnant women may result in fetal injury, premature birth and low birth weight."

"Every piece of research that I've seen with smokers tells us that smokers think that [pictorial warnings] are more effective," Hammond says. "U.S. smokers and consumers are getting worse health information than almost any other smoker in the world."

While it is true that smoking rates in the United States are lower than in other countries -- about 20 to 22 percent of the adult American population smokes -- experts have long argued that a more powerful message would have a far greater impact on smoking habits.

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