One picture is worth a thousand smokes?

Friday, November 19, 2010

As you probably already know, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently unveiled 36 proposed warning labels for cigarette packages and advertisements. The labels are gory and/or disturbing (corpses, diseased lungs, tobacco addicts smoking through a tracheotomy, a mother blowing smoke on her baby, etc.) and would cover nearly half the pack or one-fifth of any ads.

The F.D.A. obtained its gruesome photos from operating rooms, morgues, the Driver's License Photo Hall of Fame, etc.

The new labels make the old Surgeon General's warning quaint, genteel and wimpy by comparison. ("The Surgeon General has determined that smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and -- pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?")

The U.S. is a Johnny-Come-Lately where nightmarish cigarette labels are involved. Thirty-nine other countries already require large, graphic depictions of smoking's effects. ("See the stark photograph of money going up in smoke? Of course it is only foreign aid from the Great Satan the United States, but still...")

Several obstacles stand in the F.D.A.'s path. Cigarette manufacturers vow to fight the measure in federal court, saying the labels infringe their property and free-speech rights. Remember your high school civics lessons; our Inalienable Rights include the rights to life, liberty, and the hearty expression of "KA-CHING!"

Skeptics point out that the shock value of gross labels will soon wear off. Regulators may have to resort to dishonesty in order to up the ante with young smokers. Fake labels could give the impression that smoking causes your pants to cover your crack and your baseball cap to spin around forwards. Brrrrr!

And let's not forget that most smokers already know smoking is bad but are stymied by the strong physical addiction or by the old "It can't happen to me" mindset. Many smokers simply will not see themselves represented in the new labels. ("No, can't say this snapshot of a guy coughing up his left lung reminds me of anyone I know. Sorry. Say, did I ever tell you about the time I was at a frat party and started coughing up my RIGHT lung?")

I fear we're getting into "Be careful what you wish for" territory. We nonsmokers have always been sort of self-righteous in our expectations of smokers, but now we may regret our long-held desire for scarier labels. There is definitely danger of a slippery slope, with government regulators killing off cigarettes and then slapping warning labels on other enjoyments. ("40 winks: the other red meat!")

And you know the old saying. ("When they came for the smokers, I was silent, because I was not a smoker. When they came for the cheesecake eaters, I was silent because -- no wait! I wasn't silent that time. That was karaoke night. Hey, honey, when was the other time I was self-righteously silent?")

It's not just do-gooders that we have to fear. Look for self-perpetuating bureaucracies to keep unearthing new things to label. ("The F.D.A. has determined that warning labels can cause paper cuts that are a son of a gun!")

Still, the F.D.A. remains confident that it can and should reinvigorate its stagnant anti-smoking campaign.("It's not well known, but we practiced by reviving Pee Wee Herman's career. Waiting in the wings we have Pauly Shore, and M.C. Hammer pants and -- Hey! Put down that baseball bat. Baseball bats can be injurious to my...OUCH!")

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