The Department of Health and Human Services announced this past week that starting in September 2012, cigarette packages and advertisements will feature “frank, honest and powerful depictions of the health risks of smoking,” including smoke streaming from a hole in a man’s neck, a set of cancer-ravaged gums, a nicotine-cooked pair of autopsied lungs and a cartoon of a baby born to a smoking mother, gasping for breath.
Got a light?
Several U.S. tobacco companies, proudly holding high the torch of individual responsibility, tried to block the government action, calling the images “nonfactual and controversial” and, what’s more — brace yourself — “intended to elicit loathing, disgust and repulsion.”
Where is the Marlboro Man when you need him? Unavailable, alas. Wayne McLaren died of lung cancer, age 51, and may he rest in peace. The poor guy spent his declining months haunting stockholder meetings of the Philip Morris company — now Altria, which sounds a bit less smoky — trying to get its officers to acknowledge corporate complicity in the disease that was killing him. Philip Morris executives were about as forthcoming and apologetic to him as, say, the heads of Fannie Mae, Goldman Sachs, AIG and other exemplars of American capitalism were about their toxic roles in the body economic.
The new warning labels are, on the one hand, “impactful” (and apologies for that awful word). As a precocious juvenile delinquent, I started smoking at age 13, filching my mother’s Marlboros, as it happens. Would I have lit up so gleefully if the flip-top box had been adorned with a photograph of a pair of gray, tumor-eaten lungs?
Possibly not, though never underestimate the blitheness of an adolescent determined to be cool, whatever the costs. As it also happens, my mother died years later of smoking-related illness. My father died of emphysema, not from cigarettes, but from cigars. Unlike a certain U.S. president, he inhaled.
On the other hand, is it necessary — really — at this late stage to slap grotesque decals on a product that any human being with an IQ above cretinous knows to be lethal?
U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry’s epic report on the link between smoking and mortality came out in 1964. (I just looked him up and learned that this splendid American’s middle name was Leonidas, presumably derived from the heroic Spartan leader at Thermopylae, who was as dangerous to invading Persians as Marlboros are to smokers today.) Surely by now, anyone reaching for that match knows they’re lighting not just a cigarette, but the fuse of their own longevity.
There are two competing American behavioral archetypes: Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. Uncle Sam, stern but loving, exhorts us to defend our country and be good citizens. Lady Liberty stands for, well, freedom. The statue embodying her message, rising above the waters of New York Harbor, announces that this is the country where you can be anyone you want, do anything you want — as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.
Occupying a middle ground between Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty is what we libertarians call the Nanny State. The Nanny State is the national bossypants, always telling us what not to do. Don’t smoke. Don’t eat so much. Don’t drink. Where are you going on that bicycle? Put on your helmet — now!
A few decades ago, Nanny, not content with merely snatching the Marlboros and Twinkies and soda pops from our little hands, decided that she should also be in charge of the national sense of humor, a phenomenon that became known as Political Correctness. PC is the voice we hear from the back of the room, once the laughter has subsided, saying, “That’s not funny.” It’s the importance of being earnest, if rather different from what Oscar Wilde had in mind.
I’m not against the new cigarette labels, but I’m not sure I’m for them. Cigarettes kill — no argument there. So does alcohol. If that pack of Marlboros is going to look like a page from a medical textbook, shouldn’t bottles of Bud carry pictures of car crashes, or cirrhotic livers, or beaten wives? Shouldn’t Big Macs come with photos of early contestants from “The Biggest Loser”?
Should French managing directors of the International Monetary Fund be required to wear signs saying: “CAUTION: May Be Dangerous to Hotel Maids”? Or, since the cigarette labels will take effect next year at the height of the presidential campaign, shouldn’t the candidates be plastered with the label: “CAUTION: Will Say Anything to Get Elected”?
I don’t know about the others, but I could be persuaded by the last two.