FDA Efforts To Warn Smokers Temporarily Halted

Reading time: 3 – 4 minutes

In a continuing effort to educate the public on the dangers of cigarette smoking, the FDA intended to require cigarette manufacturers to post large, graphic images on packages of cigarettes. This effort has been temporarily halted by an injunction passed down from U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon last month. The FDA’s law blog explains that Judge Leon felt the warnings were not “purely factual and noncontroversial disclosures” and that “the Government’s actual purpose is not to inform, but rather to advocate a change in consumer behavior.”

Graphic images on cigarette packs

Regardless of the intention of the FDA, scientific studies show that graphic images on cigarette packages are effective deterrents to smoking. An article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization reports on the importance of pictorial warnings on the grounds that they replace positive associations and advertisements placed by cigarette manufacturers with negative associations and advertisements [1]. Further, they allow communication of the risks of smoking to illiterate tobacco users. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine suggests that graphic picture-based warnings are much more effective than text-only warnings [2], noting that the picture-based ads both educate and deter.

In the end, the case may go to the Supreme Court for a final ruling, and there is more at stake than simply the fate of cigarette packaging. One of Judge Leon’s concerns regarding the FDA’s intended packaging mandate is the precedent that would be set; that the government might one day require similar graphic imagery on the packaging of other products that negatively impact health, including junk food. While the financial interests of companies that manufacture such products would be negatively impacted by such imagery, however, the stated mission of the FDA is to protect public health. In this, they’re fighting an uphill battle against product manufacturers, who have massive advertising budgets, cast wide-reaching nets through a variety of media outlets, and take advantage of human psychology to shape behavior. So far, however, the FDA is required to fight such threats to public health through nothing more than arming the public with scientifically based information free from any sort of emotional appeal. In the end, the FDA is sent out to fight against Goliath virtually unarmed. Furthermore, if the FDA loses that fight (which, to at least some extent, they surely will), it’s important to remember that the real losers will be the American people.

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  1. Fong et al. The impact of pictures on the effectiveness of tobacco warnings. Bull World Health Organ. 2009 Aug;87(8):640-3.
    View abstract
  2. Hammond et al. Text and graphic warnings on cigarette packages: findings from the international tobacco control four country study. Am J Prev Med. 2007 Mar;32(3):202-9.
    View abstract
About the Author

Kirstin Hendrickson, Ph.D., is a science journalist and faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University. She has a PhD in Chemistry, and studied mechanisms of damage to DNA during her graduate career. Kirstin also holds degrees in Zoology and Psychology. Currently, both in her teaching and in her writing, she’s interested in methods of communicating about science, and in the reciprocal relationship between science and society. She has written a textbook called Chemistry In The World, which focuses on the ways in which chemistry affects everyday life, and the ways in which humans affect each other and the environment through chemistry.