The truth about cigarettes

Sunday, November 14, 2010; 10:03 PM

IMAGINE THAT someone is in danger, but for whatever reason is heedless to warning. It would be wrong to walk away; you'd look for better ways to get the message across. That simple but sound principle is behind the federal government's commendable decision to require new, bigger - and more graphic - warning labels on cigarette packs.

Last week, armed with new power to regulate tobacco products, federal officials unveiled proposed warning labels for cigarette packs marketed in the United States. Many of the images are disturbing. Instead of the modest and by now familiar surgeon general's warning, the new labels use coffins, diseased lungs and rotting teeth to drive home the health effects of tobacco. The language makes clear that cigarettes are addictive; cause cancer, heart disease and strokes; harm children; and "can kill you."

The Food and Drug Administration will survey smokers, hear public comment and listen to experts in winnowing the 36 proposals to the nine deemed to have the best chance of deterring smoking.

Some cigarette manufacturers are fighting the labels as infringing on free-speech rights. Other critics say that the effort is needless given that the dangers of smoking are well known. It seems to us that the government is within its rights to require truth in marketing - particularly when it comes to vital health issues - from cigarette makers. Moreover, after having been the first country to require health warnings on tobacco products, the United States has lagged behind the world in requiring warnings that describe the true effects of smoking.

Perhaps the strongest argument for the new labels is the experience of countries such as Canada, where a significant drop in smoking coincided with the introduction of more graphic warning labels.

It's also noteworthy that young people respond better to pictorial warnings. With an estimated 1,000 children and young adults each day becoming regular smokers, it is past time to reinvigorate the country's anti-smoking movement.

New labels alone aren't the solution, but they can help make a difference in how many decide to light up.


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