Ken Wassum, Associate Director, Clinical Development & Support
There will be no graphic warnings on cigarette packs anytime soon in the U.S. according to a ruling today by Judge Richard Leon. While this decision did not surprise public health advocates, it is nonetheless very disappointing. As a result, the U.S. will not join other nations around the world who have added such warnings to their cigarette packs, including Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. These warnings have been proven by the World Health Organization to convince adult smokers to quit and youth not to start.
The tobacco industry argued that the graphic warning violated their rights to free speech. U.S. District Judge Leon stated, while the line between the constitutionally permissible dissemination of factual information and the impermissible expropriation of a companys advertising space for government advocacy can be frustratingly blurry, here---where these emotion-provoking images are coupled with text extolling consumers to call the phone number 1-800-QUIT NOW --- the line seems quite clear.
Many feel like the judges ruling has rolled back the clock where the best interests of smokers are concerned. Tobacco companies have long been able to market cigarettes as a life style, not just a product. In doing so, they spend $34 million per day to convince smokers to buy their products. In emotionally charged ads the industry has sold their cigarettes drawing on the feelings associated with womens liberation (Virginia Slims), explorers trekking through the swamps of tropical landscapes (Camel), cartoon characters designed to make cigarettes seem playful in order to induce kids to smoke (Camel), and ruggedly independent cowboys roaming the plains of the West (Marlboro). So while it seems that it is ok for the tobacco industry to sell their products in this way, the judge has ruled that it is not ok for those charged with protecting the public health of Americans to do the same. Hmm.
When we read Judge Leons comment that the images selected by the government were intended to produce an emotional response and go beyond purely factual and uncontroversial information, and that this fundamental failure, coupled with the governments emphasis on images ability to provoke emotion, strongly suggests that the governments purpose is not to inform, but rather to advocate for a change in consumer behavior, we have to say really?! Isnt that what public health is about, persuading citizens to make informed choices about using consumer products that will kill them? Maybe I missed the memo, but I thought that was the job of those in public health. If all it took to change smokers behavior was to simply state that cigarettes are bad for you, cigarettes ads would be in simple black and white print and say Try these cigarettes. Theyre good!"....but they do not say that.
One can only hope that the Justice Department appeals the ruling. Lets hope that the U.S. can join the ranks of other enlightened nations who place the health and lives of their citizens above the rights of the tobacco industry to sell their products.
Ken Wassum has been treating tobacco users for over 19 years. He is past President of The Association for the Treatment of Tobacco Use and Dependence and previously served on its Board of Directors. Join him as he blogs about the effects of the tobacco epidemic, the efforts of cessation advocates, and the work left for us to rid the world of nicotine addiction. Read Ken Wassum's blog posts.
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