New tobacco rules: What will they do?

Under legislation passed by the Senate Thursday, the FDA is likely to require warnings on the packs that take up much more space.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP
Cigarette makers will have to change how they package and market their cigarettes if a bill passed by the Senate Thursday is signed into law, affecting discount cigarette shops, such as this one in West Columbia, S.C.

One way the American public will notice any new regulation of tobacco by the Food and Drug Administration is that within a year, cigarettes called “light,” “mild,” or “low” are likely to be off the shelf.

This is assuming that President Obama, who has talked about his own efforts to quit smoking, signs the historic legislation on tobacco regulation that passed the Senate on Thursday.

Even if the legislation becomes law, it will still take some time for other important elements of the bill to affect current and future cigarette smokers.

Within two years, according to the legislation, the FDA has to issue new rules on what warnings will go on cigarette packs. The industry would have fifteen months to implement the rules. This means those designer-looking cigarette packs such as Capri are likely to be history. And the health warnings – now printed on the thin side of the box – will probably take over the top half of the cigarette pack on both sides. The warnings are likely to be accompanied by a graphic image, such as a damaged lung.

But will making cigarettes less attractive encourage people to quit smoking?

Public-health advocates say it will help. “Every country that has adopted strong physical warnings has made a significant impact on attitudes, public knowledge about the danger of smoking, and the intention to quit,” says Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington advocacy group.

Countries that already have strong graphic warnings include Singapore, Australia, and Canada. Large warnings can be found in New Zealand, Belgium, and Switzerland, among others. Other countries, such as Brazil, ban the use of “light” and “low tar” types of labels on cigarettes.

The new rules go to great lengths to try to prevent the tobacco companies from circumventing the intent. Here's what happened before, according to Mr. Myers: When the graphic labels were on the bottom of the packs, the tobacco companies designed the display cases in stores to hide them. When the warnings were just on the front of the pack, the companies displayed the back in the cases.

“The reason these regulations have to be strong is we are assuming we are dealing with an industry that will do whatever it can to sell products,” Myers says.

The changes will have little impact on people who already smoke, says Barbara Kahn, an independent packaging expert who is dean of the University of Miami School of Business. “It will have a larger effect on people who have not smoked before,” she says.

The legislation’s ban on marketing that makes smoking appear sexy may also have a positive effect, especially on young people, says Ms. Kahn. “Not allowing ads to make it look like a really good thing is a really good idea,” she says.

Smokers who were standing outside a New York office building said they doubted a change in packaging would make them quit. “I’m addicted,” explains Daniel, who did not want to give his last name. “Maybe if there was some graphic picture like a diseased lung, because when I see those ads on TV about smokers and diseases, I hate them,” he says.

After more discussion, he said the only thing that might make him quit is a higher tax.

Another smoker, who did not want to give even his first name, said he intended to quit in the future. But he doesn't need a health warning, he says. “It’s already on the pack,” he said, tapping the inside of his blazer pocket.

The expected changes come at a time when the adult smoking rate in the US is at 19.7 percent – the lowest rate since the government started measuring it in the mid-1960s. Teen smoking is now at 20 percent. Part of the legislation is aimed at cutting down on teenage smoking by eliminating candy-flavored and food-flavored cigarettes in three months.

Despite the passage of the legislation in the Senate, the battle is not over, Myers says. “We may have beaten them in Congress, but the tobacco companies are not going away,” he says.

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