Sunday September 21, 2014

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New cigarette warning labels largely pointless

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Cigarette packages are getting new, more graphic warning labels. Following up on a program introduced in 2000, the new packaging will have even bigger labels, with scarier images. This is a waste of everyone’s time and money.

I say this as a non-smoker, the warning labels really aren’t much of a deterrent. My decision to avoid smoking had essentially nothing to do with the warning label attached to the box. The smokers I know have never been influenced by the warnings either, and making them bigger isn’t going to make much of a difference in their habits. You get a big ugly picture, but it’s just telling people what they already know – smoking isn’t healthy.

In general, smoking is becoming less popular, with fewer people taking up the habit and more still quitting. That’s a good thing, but I don’t think that the introduction of bigger, more elaborate warning labels has anything to do with it. Making it increasingly difficult to smoke has a much bigger effect than simply showing people a big scary image of a diseased lung, because that has an immediate effect. Since most public buildings are non-smoking, and you can’t do it in a car with a kid, you’re steadily running out of places where you can actually smoke. That’s a much bigger deterrent.

Social acceptance of smoking is a much bigger factor in people taking it up. Ad campaigns, elaborate warnings, programs to keep cigarettes hidden away in stores, none of those efforts explain why I’ve never lit up. Instead, I didn’t start smoking for two, equally important reasons. One, the smoking crew in my school was mostly comprised of people I didn’t get along with, while my friends were all non-smokers. That meant peer pressure was firmly on the side of keeping away from cigarettes. Two, an acquaintance bought a car from a woman who smoked in it heavily, and it still smelled extremely bad. The pictures on a package are easily ignored, but the smell in that car was unavoidable.

So since there’s no way we can give everyone that particular old pink Chevy, it’s clear that the only way to prevent more people smoking is making it less cool. That is happening naturally, as fewer people smoke and it’s becoming less convenient and socially acceptable to do so. I struggle to think of how one can push smoking further into the margins, but in general it’s harder to smoke than it was even ten years ago.

Going in that direction is a much more effective way of combatting the problem than spending money on new graphic images and bigger warnings. If the old warnings didn’t work, the new ones will not make a dent, and any new campaign is just reminding people that governments generally don’t approve of the habit. That’s the only thing giving smoking a cool factor, the fact that people clearly don’t want you to do it anymore.

I’d argue that we’ve almost reached the point where we can just ignore cigarettes and they’ll burn out eventually. Keep everything that’s currently in place, and we’ll likely see the habit continue its steadily decline, as fewer people take it up and more people decide to quit. Everything else that can be done has been, and it’s clear we’re running low on ideas.


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