OUR VIEW: Cigarette labels go too far



WARNING: Reading this newspaper might cause paper cuts. Or, for Web users — WARNING: Reading this page might cause eye strain. We doubt those warnings would cause many readers to stop using Star Press products.

If this sounds silly, then one has to question the efficacy of the government forcing cigarette makers to slap graphic photos on their packages starting in 2012. The Food and Drug Administration has approved nine new warnings to rotate on cigarette packs. They will be printed on the entire top half, front and back, of the packaging. The new warnings also must constitute 20 percent of any cigarette advertising, and will include a number for a stop-smoking hotline.

One warning label is a picture of a corpse with its chest sewed up and the words: “Smoking can kill you.” Another label has a picture of a healthy pair of lungs beside a yellow and black pair with a warning that smoking causes fatal lung disease.

Four of the five largest cigarette makers filed a suit last week in federal court, saying the warnings violate their free speech rights.

The companies say the warnings no longer simply convey facts to allow people to make a decision on whether to smoke. Instead, they force companies to advocate for the government to stop smoking — on a legal product — more prominently than they display their own brands.

We’re not sure corporations have free speech rights like you and me, but we do know the new labeling is silly, smacks of hypocrisy and is a perfect example of the overreach of government regulation.

Everybody knows smoking is bad for you. It doesn’t take a graphic photo of a smoker with a tracheotomy to drive home the message. Comedian/actor Dennis Leary has a famous stand up routine about cigarettes that goes, in part: “Doesn’t matter how big the warnings are. You could have cigarettes that were called The Warnings. You could have cigarettes that come in a black pack, with a skull and a crossbone on the front, called Tumors, and smokers would be lined up around the block. …”

All kidding aside, there is some truth to that. Smoking is incredibly addictive. Relying on shock might work initially to get smokers to quit. After the shock value fades, however, the photos will quickly become part of the everyday scenery. One can even envision teens new to the smoking habit trying to acquire a complete set of warning photos. Collecting all nine just might be a cool thing to do.

Our government at the state and federal level tells us that smoking is bad, yet that same government is more than happy to collect the billions of dollars in taxes tobacco brings in every year.

Finally, should this heavy-handed approach withstand a court test, expect to see graphic warnings added to other consumer products: liquor, stepladders, cars, perhaps this newspaper. The world is a dangerous place, but do we really need the government to go to these lengths to protect us from ourselves?

The point has been made that smoking is bad for your health. These new labels are an unreasonable and unnecessary intrusion by the government on the use of a legal product. It’s yet another example of government thinking it knows what’s best for all of us.

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