By Ana Veciana-Suarez
Eating chips by the bagful isn’t good for us, but we munch on them anyway. We know riding a motorcycle without a helmet tempts fate, but we pass legislation that allows the very same. And when we light up a cigarette, sneaking it in the courtyard on our work break, we understand that we’re risking a catastrophic array of health problems.
But does awareness of an incontrovertible truth stop from us from doing dangerous things? Not always. Chalk it up to the duality of human nature: otherwise reasonable people participating in unhealthy activities. Doesn’t matter how many times others warn us. Doesn’t matter if the scariest facts are staring at us in the face.
We enjoy today, pay tomorrow — if the bill comes due at all.
The government wants to change that attitude. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration announced it will require the tobacco industry to cover the top half of cigarette boxes and 20 percent of tobacco ads with graphic anti-smoking images beginning next year. The idea: Get the 43 million to 50 million American smokers to quit and prevent millions more, particularly foolish young adults, from taking it up.
Good luck, feds. Despite our best efforts — smoking bans, tobacco taxes and educational campaigns — the truly addicted keep puffing away even as their breath stinks, their teeth get stained and society ostracizes them. Sure, the percentage of smokers has dropped from 42 percent of the population to 20 percent in half a century, but that latter figure has held steady since 2003. To quote that great 20th century philosopher Forrest Gump: Stupid is as stupid does.
The FDA, though, thinks it can cure stupid and addiction, two of the most common afflictions to bedevil mankind. It has selected nine cigarette carton images that are… well, they’re gross, nauseating and disgusting. My favorite features a smoker exhaling through a tracheotomy hole. The others fit well in a horror house gallery: an autopsied corpse, a picture of a mottled lung, a close-up of rotted teeth. The agency picked the nine images from 36 submitted after testing their impact on various groups. One official estimated that a pack-a-day smoker would confront the photos more than 7,000 times a year.
Will that matter? Probably not, and it pains me to write that. Smoking is highly addictive. Experts estimate that 40 percent of smokers try to kick the habit every year but fewer than one in 10 succeed.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the government expects to have 213,000 fewer smokers in the first year after the FDA introduces the new labels in 2012, but I suspect that number is too optimistic and that efforts will stall. They may even backfire. The cartons may develop a cult following. They may become collectors’ items, much like that 55-card deck the U.S. military issued of the most wanted leaders of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Count on a strong pushback from cigarette makers. They will find increasingly devious ways to tempt the young and the impressionable. Smoking is still common in movies, and many teens, coveted new customers, consider a cig in hand to be the epitome of cool. If you doubt, stroll a park or open air mall.
Manufacturers are already complaining that the new warnings infringe on their First Amendment freedoms. First, schmirst. Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and the rest of them are dead wrong. Their right to free speech is trumped by our inalienable right to self-destruction.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.