Dec. 2, 2010

The ugly truth

We already know that tobacco can kill us. So why is the federal government about to require all cigarette packages and advertising to include graphic — if not downright gruesome — reminders of that fact?

Well, we already know what’s in a box of breakfast cereal or a can of chicken noodle soup, too. That doesn’t stop purveyors of those products from dressing up their appearance to make them appear more delectable than the next brand on the shelf.

Image matters. It moves people to buy things. Now, finally, we’ll have laws to move people not to buy things that not only kill them, but add huge costs to the health care system that non-smokers pay for. The tobacco companies have long known that images matter. They didn’t invest all that money in Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man just to throw money at graphic artists and rugged actors.

So, now that Congress has finally given the Food and Drug Administration the power to really regulate tobacco sales and marketing, the FDA and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, are rolling out the proposals for the new warning labels for packs and ads.

They include photos and drawings that illustrate directly and sometimes harshly what happens to smokers: A skeletal cancer patient obviously on death’s door. A body with a huge scar down the middle of its chest. A person who has already lost his larynx to throat cancer and still smokes. A middle-aged man clutching his chest, his face twisted in pain.

By the proposed rules, now out for public comment, cigarette packs sold after Oct. 22, 2012, will have to devote half of the surface of every cigarette pack to one of those images. Cigarette advertising will have to include the images, too.

It’s about time.

For years, the tobacco industry has used its considerable clout over Washington to keep its products free of the same level of regulation that has long been considered minimal for everything from baby food to automobiles. The result has been an industry devoted to marketing a product that kills 1,200 Americans every day.

An outright ban on tobacco products would be unworkable. There are too many addicts out there, and any attempt to put the law between them and their smokes would create a black market the size of a small nation.

But it is clearly in the public interest for the government to act in ways that help smokers quit and, more importantly, stop the next generation from picking up the habit. We just can’t afford it.