Government turns to corpses to cure recalcitrant smokers

By Jayson Jacoby July 08, 2011 06:17 pm

In concept, I’m all for cramming more corpses into the design of warning labels for carcinogenic consumer products.

And I have no problem, per se, with packages that show a person smoking a cigarette through a hole in his throat.

But I’m not convinced the federal government needed to go to so much trouble — I don’t expect it’s all that easy to arrange corpses for photo shoots — to explain to Americans that tobacco can kill you.

Which notion pretty much epitomizes the term “common knowledge."

Non-smokers already recognize the danger, which is why they don’t smoke.

And smokers are intimately familiar with the potential problems, too, what with the nagging coughs and lung biopsies and all.

Yet the feds, apparently eager to flex their newfound (since 2009) regulatory muscles regarding tobacco, decided those text-only “smoking causes cancer”-style warnings, which have adorned packages for almost half a century, lack a certain pizazz.

By September 2012, tobacco packages must also include any of several color images that depict possible effects of the products. These images include diseased lungs, a mother holding her baby while tobacco smoke (harmless simulated smoke, one would hope) swirls around them, and the aforementioned corpse and inhaling-through-the-stoma smoker.

Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, concedes that the labels are “frank, powerful depictions.”

But she pointed out that marketing experts believe, and studies show, that explicit warnings are more effective than milquetoast ones.

“Fear really drives the effectiveness of these warning labels,” Jeremy Kees, a marketing professor at the Villanova School of Business, told The Associated Press. “Mild, weak images are, in some cases, no better than a plain text warning.”

(Although even a healthy lung, in common with other organs, looks kind of gross, in my view, when seen in color.)

But what if “no better than” is already pretty darn good?

Consider this: The percentage of Americans who smoke cigarettes has declined from 45 percent in 1954 to about 20 percent now.

That happened without the government forcing anyone to print pictures of bodies and diseased organs on a single pack of cigarettes.

As I mentioned, the unsettling feeling I have about the new law requiring more blatant labels has nothing to do with their content.

The FDA can plaster billboards across the nation with photos of tumor-ridden larynxes for all I care.

What offends me is what this campaign implies. Which is that a significant number of Americans will keep poisoning themselves unless the government kicks them upside the head, figuratively speaking.

The truth, of course, is that most people who smoke cigarettes, or who engage in other obviously risky behaviors, do so not because they’re ignorant of the risks.

Skydivers are quite aware of gravity, for instance.

But having weighed the danger against the exhilaration of plummeting at terminal velocity, they decided to jump.

I doubt any would choose to stay on the plane were the government to mandate that all parachutes be emblazoned with a picture of whatever’s left of a person whose chute failed to open.

Skydivers, of course, make up a minority of the population.

But so do smokers — and theirs is a minority that’s dwindled as time goes by.

I believe the government had something to do with that gratifying trend.

Those “plain text” warning labels, required since 1965, have helped to permeate American society with the reality that tobacco kills many of the people who use it habitually.

And in those dim days, when athletes and other celebrities touted the healthful effects of smoking, the government had good reason to counter such nonsensical propaganda.

But now the government, in pursuit of the admirable goal of promoting healthy lifestyles, seems to have succumbed to the ridiculous notion that such behavior can be compelled if only the advice is accompanied by the sorts of grisly scenes that made Wes Craven wealthy.

This matter of how people react to risks has been on my mind recently due to a book I’ve been reading.

It’s called “Eiger: Wall of Death.” The author, Arthur Roth, chronicles mountaineers’ attempts to climb the north face of the Eiger, a mountain in the Swiss Alps.

Almost a dozen climbers died on the face before the first successful ascent in 1938. Since then, another 40 or so people have fallen from the Eiger or had their skulls cracked by its falling stones or frozen to death while clinging to one of its ice fields or limestone cliffs.

Yet every year alpinists congregate there, hoping to finish the most famous climb in the Alps.

I’m not suggesting that big wall climbers, or skydivers, are analogous to smokers and snuff-dippers.

In fact, the effort to dissuade people from using tobacco is more Sisyphean than trying to convince people not to scale a 6,000-foot cliff that’s frequently coated in ice and swept by avalanches.

The reason, of course, is that nicotine is vastly more addictive than adrenaline or fame or whatever else is is that compels thrill-seekers.

Unless the government is willing to adopt “A Clockwork Orange”-like tactics and start strapping smokers to chairs and propping open their eyelids with toothpicks, federal officials ought to realize that no matter how graphic the labels are that they legislate, a certain percentage of Americans will continue to use tobacco because they either don’t want to stop, or they can’t conquer the physical and psychological addiction.

Federal officials say they pushed for the new labels because the percentage of smokers seems to have leveled out at 20 percent over the past several years.

Yet it might well be that that 20 percent represents smokers whose addiction is immune to the most explicit warning labels the marketing mavens can muster.

In that case, the government would be better off trying to bolster addiction treatment programs than writing label laws.

Or maybe the Postal Service ought to start delivering a pack of that nicotine gum to every smoker each week.

Sugar-free gum, of course.

You know how irresponsible people are when it comes to dental hygiene.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.