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Students, faculty react to new FDA smoking warnings

Some students and faculty said the new tobacco labels proposed by the Food and Drug Administration will be more effective than current labels.
Some students and faculty said the new tobacco labels proposed by the Food and Drug Administration will be more effective than current labels.

Sometimes widespread knowledge of danger is not enough to prevent risky behavior.

In response to the major health issues perpetuated by smoking, the Food and Drug Administration proposed 36 options for new graphic warning labels for placement on cigarette cartons earlier this month. These new warnings are photographs of the effects of smoking and are intended to encourage tobacco users to quit. Some photographs include a depiction of the foot of a corpse and a mother blowing smoke on her baby with phrases such as, “Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease,” and, “Tobacco smoke can harm your children.”

These visuals will supplement the surgeon general’s warning and are a result of legislation passed in June 2009 that gave the FDA power to regulate tobacco products. Surveys of American smokers will help the FDA narrow the 36 images to nine.

“We have been enforcing warning labels since 1969, and we’re the first country to require tobacco products to bear the surgeon general’s warning,” said Don Taylor, associate professor of public policy studies. “As the number one cause of preventative death in America, 46 million adults in the [United States] currently smoke and thousands of new young people try it every day, yet other countries have taken more intense measures to combat the addiction while we lag behind.”

The images will be selected by June and implemented nationally no later than 15 months later. The warnings will cover the top 50 percent of the front and back of a cigarette pack and will comprise at least 20 percent of any smoking advertisement.

For some international students at Duke, such graphic warnings of the dangers of smoking are familiar. Freshman John Scott-Jones, who grew up in New Zealand, said he remembers the start there of a similar campaign. New Zealand is one of 39 nations that have imposed this sort of visually explicit warnings.

“Before we had the image warnings, we had tag lines like ‘Smoking Kills’ across the middle of every packet, but that wasn’t very effective because people could just laugh it off,” he said. “It is a lot harder to laugh off the image of cholesterol clogging up arteries or a snapshot from the middle of surgery.”

Although the U.S. boasts the second lowest rate of smoking in the world, Taylor said the problem is not the rate of smoking but rather the lack of progress in decreasing it.

“[The smoking rate] was around 40 percent in 1965 and diminished to about 20 percent just five years ago,” he said. “Since then the decline has stagnated, which indicates the need for a change in policy.”

Frank Sloan, the J. Alex McMahon professor in health policy, said the “shock value” of these images will likely help prevent a new generation of smokers.

“Everybody knows smoking is bad, so nobody will be informed [by the new labels]. But people respond to emotional cues so this may be an effort to prevent people from picking up a pack of cigarettes by placing a disturbing image in plain sight,” Sloan said.

Noting his own experience as a smoker, freshman Sharif Labban said he thinks these images will help to combat college students’ feeling of invincibility.

“These images are powerful, [especially] the image of a post-surgery scar,” he said. “It reminds us young students about the things that are stronger than us. [These images] make the idea of death more real.”


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