Graphic cigarette labels go too far in fight to curb tobacco use

It's unclear whether graphic illustrations, like this one, will appear on cigarette packages in the U.S. after the D.C. Circuit Court ruled them unconstitutional. (Photo courtesy the Food and Drug Administration)

It’s unclear whether graphic illustrations, like this one, will appear on cigarette packages in the U.S. after the D.C. Circuit Court ruled them unconstitutional. (Photo courtesy the Food and Drug Administration)

My biggest regret in life thus far is my first cigarette.

I was 18 and the designated driver at a West Texas dance hall. I sat at a counter that circled that dance floor and smoked for hours, mostly out of boredom. Two years later, I was a pack-a-day smoker. I was convinced I could quit whenever I wanted, that I was in control. I never would have thought that I would wake up six years later, more addicted than ever.

I was not predisposed to smoking, in fact the opposite. My father is a physician and I spent my high school years teaching younger children about the perils of tobacco and how nicotine addiction affects the brain. I was not a victim of the tobacco companies or a media culture that glamorizes smoking; I was a victim of my own arrogance and stupidity.

If you haven’t been living under a rock for 50 years, you know that smoking is bad for you. You probably also know that it is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide. This is all common knowledge, yet a fifth of the population still smokes. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act because tobacco remains a public health crisis.

The most notorious requirement of the Tobacco Control Act is a provision that requires cigarette packages to display graphic warning labels depicting the dangers of smoking. Everyone knows that smoking can lead to disease and death, yet millions still light up. The labels are meant to evoke an emotional reaction that will stop consumers from buying cigarettes.

Regulation designed to inform consumers (like the current cigarette warning labels, mandatory calorie counts at restaurants or nutritional information on packaged food) is meant to overcome a market failure due to asymmetrical information. This is when a producer of a product knows more about the it than the consumer.

The tobacco companies have a long history of taking advantage of this situation, creating generation after generation of addicts to a deadly product. They are clearly not a sympathetic plaintiff in this case, but that shouldn’t matter.

The District of Columbia Circuit Court has struck down the labels on First Amendment grounds, saying that while the federal government has the right to require producers to inform consumers, it does not have the right to force a producer to become an advertising vehicle for the government. This is especially so when a corporation becomes such a vehicle against its economic self-interest.

The government clearly has an interest in reducing tobacco use in America, and it continues to use different methods: the Center for Disease Control funds advertisements, Congress can continue to increase the tax on cigarettes, and Congress could choose to prohibit the sale or use of tobacco they way it has with cocaine (although this probably wouldn’t be wise politically or practically).

If the graphic warning labels were in effect in 2004, maybe I would have never smoked a cigarette. If they were in effect in 2009, maybe I would have quit. I wish I would have never smoked in 2004 or, at least, that I would have quit by 2009.

Yet I still believe that the D.C. Circuit Court made the right call. If Congress is able to force corporations to advertise messages on behalf of the government, then there really is no limit to its power.

Posted by on December 14, 2012. Filed under Judicial. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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