FDA Proposes New Graphic Health Warnings For Cigarettes

By Lindsey Weedston 08/22/19

The current text warnings haven’t been updated since 1984.

cigarettes with graphic warnings
Photo via Wikimedia Commons/PumpMeUp

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is renewing its push for updated warnings and graphic images on packs of cigarettes meant to catch people's attention and ensure users know the risks of smoking tobacco products.

The current text warnings haven’t been updated since 1984, and the FDA believes that they have long gone unnoticed by consumers. 

“With these new proposed cigarette health warnings, we have an enormous public health opportunity to fulfill our statutory mandate and increase the public’s understanding of the full scope of serious negative health consequences of cigarette smoking,” said acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD, in a press release. “Given that tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., there’s a lot at stake to ensure the public understands these risks.”

The FDA believes that the current Surgeon General’s warnings that appear on cigarettes and product ads have become “virtually invisible to both smokers and nonsmokers” over the years. 

Big Tobacco Pushes Back

The agency made its first attempt to update these warnings with large, colorful graphics depicting health issues such as diseased lungs and cancerous neck tumors in June 2011.

However, they were challenged in court by tobacco companies on the grounds that they were “crafted to evoke a strong emotional response,” which they argued violated their freedom of speech. The U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia sided with the cigarette makers in August 2012, and the FDA went back to the drawing board to create usable warning labels.

According to AP News, eight health groups sued the FDA in 2016 when the new warning labels didn’t appear. Three years later, the agency is ready to finalize a new rule proposed on the 15th for warnings backed by research and designed to fill what FDA Tobacco Director Mitch Zeller called “significant gaps in [the public’s] understanding of all of the diseases and conditions associated with smoking.”

Zeller believes the new designs will be able to weather any legal challenges.

Currently, close to 120 countries have adopted the kind of graphic warnings the FDA is proposing, and studies have suggested that they work as intended. According to one study from 2014, graphic warnings “lowered intention to smoke in the future among those with a moderate lifetime smoking history (between 1 and 100 cigarettes), and they increased intention to quit smoking among those with a heavy lifetime smoking history (more than 100 cigarettes).”

Deaths from smoking-related illnesses have remained high over the decades, and have actually increased among women, even as the percentage of Americans who smoke has decreased. It causes over seven million deaths worldwide every year and is the leading cause of preventable death.

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston