Gruesome cigarette pack warnings go up in smoke

The FDA is backing away from a legal battle over requiring graphic images on packages showing smoking's health effects.

By Aimee Picchi Mar 20, 2013 2:55PM

File photo of FDA cigarette warning label (© U.S. Food and Drug Administration/AP)A plan to place gruesome images on cigarette packs has apparently ended, with the U.S. government saying it'll drop a legal battle to include photos depicting the habit's impact, such as diseased lungs and a smoker's corpse, on the packaging. 


Attorney General Eric Holder said the Food and Drug Administration will instead rethink the packaging and create labeling that would replace the graphic photos, reports the Associated Press.


The government had faced a Monday deadline to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review an earlier ruling that found the packaging violated First Amendment free speech protections. The decision is a victory for tobacco companies such as R.J. Reynolds (RAI), which increasingly rely on packaging to appeal to smokers, given limits on the companies' ability to advertise. 


The move follows New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest fight against unhealthy products. He's now proposing a law that would require stores hide cigarettes from sight, as reported by my colleague Jason Notte


The anti-smoking group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said it was "disappointed" with the government's decision to drop the graphic images, and it urged the FDA to quickly develop new cigarette package warnings.


"Studies around the world and evidence presented to the FDA show that large, graphic warnings are most effective at informing consumers about the health risks of smoking," the group said in a statement. "The warnings discourage children and other nonsmokers from starting to smoke and also motivate smokers to quit."


Whether the images are effective at getting people to quit or not, they're certainly skin-crawling. One image showed a man exhaling smoke through a tracheotomy hole in his throat, while another depicted an infant wrapped in the cigarette smoke breathed by his mother, the AP notes. 


It's a tactic that's mandated in Australia, where cigarette packaging shows gangrenous limbs, cancerous mouths and clogged arteries.


Such graphic images are more effective than text warnings, which have appeared on packs since at least the mid-1980s, according to a study from researchers at the University of South Carolina. 


"We found the more graphic the image, the more credible, relevant, and effective smokers saw the warning," professor James Thrasher, who conducted the study, told US News and World report in November. 


While about 19% of Americans smoke today, the AP notes that's down from about 40% in 1970.


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