Anti-Smoking Gets Graphic

December 1st, 2010 by Andrea Bennett

The FDA’s new campaign will make you cringe, but will it make smokers stop?

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The Responsibility Project

What will it take to get current smokers to kick the habit, or to prevent new smokers from ever picking it up? How about wrapping graphic warning labels halfway around both sides of a carton, so that each time you reach for a cigarette you’re forced to look at a set of cancerous lips, a corpse with incisions or a cartoon mother blowing smoke in her infant’s face?

The Food and Drug Administration is counting on such gruesome imagery for some extra help in battling smoking. It recently reported that 4,000 kids still try smoking every day, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 20 percent of adults smoke – a proportion of the population that has held fairly constant.

As such, the FDA will select nine of a proposed 39 images to accompany cigarette packaging by June 22nd of next year. By October 22, 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services says you won’t be able to buy a pack that doesn’t carry one of the new labels.

To see all the images, click here (remember: they’re graphic).

“We want to make sure every person who picks up a pack of cigarettes knows exactly what the risk is they are taking,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at a recent news conference.

Shelly Kiser, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Ohio, told the Columbus Dispatch that the current warning labels, which haven’t changed much since the 1980s, have become so ubiquitous that people don’t even notice them anymore. The new warnings, approved through a new law passed last year, “are really going to catch people’s attention,” she said.

But not everyone agrees that the scare tactic of looking at a picture of a man, say, blowing smoke from the hole in his throat will necessarily stop smokers. Jonathan Whiteson, medical director of NYU Langone Medical Center’s cardiac and pulmonary wellness and rehabilitation program, told the Wall Street Journal that the “stop-in-your-track image of a diseased lung” needs to be followed quickly with a positive message about the benefits of stopping – such as breathing easier and being able to exercise.

He noted that people who smoke already know it isn’t good for them; the images alone aren’t likely to change their behavior. He also said that a constant stream of shocking images may even desensitize people over time so they eventually don’t even notice the images.

But if any man can claim to have been entrenched in the world of cigarette advertising, it’s Patrick Reynolds, grandson of RJ Reynolds and executive director of the Foundation for a Smokefree America. Reynolds’ father, brother and other relatives all died from smoking-related illnesses. He told the UK’s Daily Mail, “This is going to stop kids from starting to smoke…and it’s going to give smokers a strong incentive to quit smoking.”

New research, however, suggests that for some smokers, the graphic death references may actually increase the likelihood that they’ll continue smoking. Weighing in on the labeling debate, Miller-McCune’s Tom Jacobs referenced a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that suggested how making smokers think they are less cool or attractive could be more effective than making them believe they’ll die from the habit. The research, led by psychologist Jochim Hansen of New York University and the University of Basel, looked at cigarette pack warnings from the perspective of Terror Management Theory (a theory put forth in the 1980s contending that our awareness of our own deaths creates the potential for extreme anxiety, which we keep at bay by reaffirming faith in our belief systems and maintaining a high level of self-esteem). So for those smokers, the threat to their lives would presumably result in the desire to pump up their self-esteem – which, ironically for that set, could mean what the story describes as a “renewed commitment to smoking.”

What are your thoughts? Are these images scary enough to get smokers to stop, or will they just become another part of our smoky cultural fabric in time? And is calling it counterproductive right on the mark, or over-thinking it?