This week Rep. Jim Hansen, the Utah Republican who serves as co-chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Tobacco and Health, proposed legislation that would mandate graphic warnings that would cover half of the front and back of all cigarette packages and half of advertisements in newspapers and magazines. In addition to the proposed text, the Hansen bill would require pictures of such things as disease lungs — or a person suffering from addiction. “If I had my way” Hansen said, “cigarettes would say things like ‘Stop – These Things Will Kill You!'”

Hansen should be praised for his public recognition of the extraordinary health dangers of smoking. He is one of very few Republicans today who seems willing to speak out about the unique and devastating public — and private — health effects of smoking. But unfortunately, there are at least three reasons his proposed “stronger” label will not promote public health.

First, psychologists have been telling us for a long time that high-fear pitches do not produce the desired behavior change. Experiments in the l960s at Yale University confirmed that smokers shown diseased lungs and other clinically specific, morbid signs of the effects of smoking were less likely to quit than those given more neutral information.

Second, if warning labels become as high pitched and grim as Hansen suggests, cigarette packages might become a “hip” accessory for defiant adolescents and young adults making a statement about what they perceive as their immortality. Bluntly put, the labels become a joke — a macabre status symbol. This became clear in the mid-l990s when an initially well-meaning entrepreneur began manufacturing tobacco under the logo “Death Cigarettes,” complete with skull and bones. Death cigarettes became an instant commercial success in the southwestern United States. A deadly serious subject suddenly became a joke.

Third, the best favor the U.S. Congress ever did for the cigarette industry was to mandate the “Surgeon General Warning” label (which has nothing to do with the Surgeon General — Congress wrote the warning) on packs and then in advertisements in the late l960s. This act of Congress relieved cigarette companies of their responsibility to warn the public about the specific details concerning their product’s dangers. The cigarette warning label has been enormously protective for the industry in court as they argue that they were “pre-empted,” or forbidden by Congress, from putting any more specific label on the pack. Hansen’s bill would serve only as another layer of Teflon coating to further protect the industry.

Indeed what Hansen should be recommending is that the mandated congressional warning label be repealed. The responsibility for detailed, comprehensive warnings of the dangers of smoking would return to the cigarette manufacturers where it rightfully and legally belongs.

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