Not much has changed in the cigarette packaging world since the now familiar warning from the Surgeon General appeared on the side of a pack reminding you that smoking can be harmful to your health. That was 45 years ago.
This week, the FDA proposes to change all that, utilizing its new authority to regulate the marketing of tobacco products in the U.S. The change is big. The change is graphic. The agency has unveiled several versions that would boost up the Surgeon General's warning by several notches. It is certainly a bold departure.
There are nine examples of the packaging, each one bearing a color photograph along with a tag line. These include images that remind a consumer that cigarette smoking can harm your children, that they are addictive (accompanied by a photograph of a man smoking through a tracheotomy opening in the neck), and that smoking can kill. Only one of the messages is actually a positive reinforcement message and oddly enough, the one that I found the most effective. Rather than trying to scare the smoker, which might make one nervous that in turn, might make one want a cigarette, there was a message from a big bloke that told us that he quit.
I'm not saying scary messages don't work, and I presume these have been tested, but a greater balance between the positive and the negative seems to me to be a more logical approach. But in the end, I'm for anything that cuts down the number of smoking.
It is unfortunate that this new development, long in coming, arrives now. Because while enhancing the warnings on the labels with the use of graphic imagery and fear may reduce smoking, knowledge of the dangers of smoking alone is not a comprehensive approach – though it is the part over which the FDA has authority right now. But if knowledge alone were enough to change smoking behavior, the Surgeon General warning would have sufficed. Another part to the public health smoking puzzle is, of course an array of other programs, including smoking cessation programs. And these are often engineered and funded at the state levels where budgets are about to be slashed and burned. From a public health perspective, that may be as scary as some of these labels.
The FDA notice about the new packaging proposals calls for public comment and gives instruction on how to submit commentary into the docket.