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Warning labels for cigarette packs take a grisly turn. Will they work?

Warning labels unveiled by the FDA would be the first change to cigarette pack warnings in 25 years. Nine graphic images were chosen using consumer surveys that involved 18,000 people.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / June 21, 2011



New York

Announcing the first change to cigarette pack health warnings in 25 years, the US Food and Drug Administration unveiled nine graphic warning labels Tuesday that cigarette companies will be required to print by the fall of 2012 on the top half of every cigarette pack and 20 percent of every poster or ad.

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Some of the images are grisly – showing the top half of a cadaver after an autopsy – and designed to perhaps shock smokers into quitting. Others are somewhat educational, showing smoke drifting toward a young child’s face with a warning that tobacco smoke can harm your children. And, every pack will contain the 800 number to call for help quitting smoking.

“This represents the most dramatic change in the history of the United States efforts to curtail smoking, because it’s the first time health warnings on smoking were selected because of effectiveness instead of political acceptability,” says Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington.

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But, will it make any difference once the warnings are in place? They are supposed to be slapped on by October 2012, although tobacco companies are contesting the new regulations in court.

According to Margaret Hamburg, the commissioner of Food and Drugs, economists at the agency calculate 213,000 smokers will quit in the first year. “That does not start to calculate the number who choose not to start smoking,” says Ms. Hamburg in an interview.

Although this number represents only half of 1 percent of the 40 million smokers in the US, antismoking advocates say it could save 60,000 to 70,000 lives if the tobacco-users quit for good. “Very few actions save 70,000 lives,” says Mr. Myers.

Images chosen after consumer surveys

The nine images are the result of what Ms. Hamburg terms one of the largest consumer surveys, in which 18,000 people were asked for their impressions of the warning labels. “We collected a lot of information and I think we will see an increased awareness,” she says, “Importantly, they will discourage individuals who are not yet smokers from becoming smokers.”

Already some 43 countries have graphic warnings. However, even advocates for the images say there are no conclusive studies that show a direct correlation between the ads and individuals quitting smoking.

“In every instance, there was an increased awareness, an increased sense of the real dangers of smoking and a significantly increased motivation for quitting,” says Myers. “But, it’s very hard to measure precisely how many quit because of the addition of warning labels.”

According to an FDA public comment filing by antismoking advocates, pictorial warning labels introduced in Australia in 2006 made 57 percent of smokers think about quitting, helped 36 percent of smokers reduce their consumption, and helped 34 percent of smokers try to quit.

Old warnings lost their impact

Although US cigarette packs already contain health warnings, they have not changed in 25 years, points out Ms. Hamburg. “After 25 years we know they no longer have much impact," says Hamburg.

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