Big Government Gets Ugly

It’s not unusual for the federal government to provoke widespread retching among its citizens, but it rarely does so intentionally. The new warning labels required on cigarette packs, however, have that goal. Designed to evoke disgust with smoking, they may also induce revulsion at excessive uses of power.

The old cigarette warnings inform consumers of straightforward facts, such as: “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy” and “Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health.” Thanks in part to such labels, Americans today fully grasp that smoking is unsafe.

But the point of the new labels is not to ensure that potential and actual smokers understand the hazards of the habit and make an informed choice. The point is to get people to avoid cigarettes whether they want to or not.

The Food and Drug Administration finds it intolerable that despite all the efforts to stamp out smoking — through tobacco taxes, advertising restrictions, educational campaigns and smoking bans — nearly 50 million Americans continue to puff away. The hope is that repeated assaults with nauseating photos will kill the urge.

So anyone electing to smoke will have to run a gauntlet of horrors: a corpse, a diseased lung, rotting gums and a smoker exhaling through a tracheotomy hole.

All this is made possible thanks to legislation passed in 2009 and signed by President Barack Obama. If it sounds like the sort of bossy, intrusive, big-government approach championed by Democrats, it is. But it passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses, with most Senate Republicans in support.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius imagines that the FDA is filling an unfortunate information gap. With these labels, she says, “every person who picks up a pack of cigarettes is going to know exactly what risk they’re taking.”

By “every person,” she means every person who’s been trapped at the bottom of a well for the past 50 years. Everyone else already knew. Cigarette companies have had to provide health warnings since the 1960s. The current labels allow no fond illusions about the fate awaiting tobacco addicts.

Sebelius apparently thinks the health information has been widely overlooked. Not to worry. Vanderbilt University law professor W. Kip Viscusi has found that smokers greatly overestimate the risk of dying from ailments caused by tobacco. If the government wanted to make sure that Americans were accurately informed, it would have to tell them smoking is considerably less dangerous than they assume.

Our leaders think that since stark facts haven’t done enough to deter tobacco use, scary images are in order. The FDA predicts that by 2013, the new warnings will diminish the total number of smokers in the United States by 213,000.

Contain your excitement. The agency admits that the overall effect is “highly uncertain” and that its estimate could be way off. Even if its forecast comes true, the change would cut the prevalence of smoking by less than one-half of 1 percent.

As it happens, there is not much reason to expect even this microscopic reduction to materialize. Last year, researchers commissioned by the FDA exposed adults and teens to such images to assess the likely impact. Despite the emotional punch of the pictures, they didn’t seem to induce adults to stop smoking or deter teens from starting.

Based on the experience of other countries that have tried hideous photos, including Canada, Britain and Australia, Viscusi sees no grounds for optimism. “Smoking rates decline after the warnings but at the same rate as they did before the advent of warnings,” he told me. “The key for judging whether there is likely to be an effect is whether the warnings shifted the trend in smoking rates in these other countries, and they did not.”

Why not? Maybe because people already knew the risks. Maybe because most smokers enjoy tobacco enough not to care. Maybe because people soon learn to ignore the nasty pictures the way they tune out other warning messages.

The likely ineffectuality of this mandate does not discourage anti-tobacco crusaders. Its basic character, however, should spur everyone else to ask what business the federal government has interfering with a transaction between legal sellers and informed buyers who are minding their own business.

The new labels thrust the government further into gratuitous regulation of personal behavior, motivated less by medical concerns than moralism. Now, that’s ugly.



Steve Chapman


Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been a member of the editorial board since 1981. He came to the Tribune from The New Republic magazine, where he was an associate editor. He has contributed articles to Slate, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and Reason, and has appeared on numerous TV and radio news programs, including The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and National Public Radio's Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. Born in Brady, Texas, in 1954, Chapman grew up in Midland and Austin. He attended Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, and graduated with honors in 1976. He has been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and has served on the Visiting Committee of the University of Chicago Law School.

  • Andy

    Something tells me that if a bill were put forward requiring women to look at an aborted baby before entering an abortion mill, the outcome would be significantly different.

  • Pammie

    The Managerial Class at its best and to add to the irony, it comes under the First Smoker’s reign. Nevermind concerning itself with real problems facing our civilization. Waste time and effort on a “solution” that has been proven ineffective to a problem far less hurtful than__________ (pick one).

    I propose violins and lessons for Congress and special legislation and funds to level the playing field for the deaf in government positions. We’d also better throw in another Czar to montior and regulate the whole process and another Wall Street type to arrange the loan terms from whomever is foolish enough to give us more money to pay for it all. Keep the whole charade going until everyone MUST smoke in order stave off hunger pains, and then call this newest government excess a success. No one will know the difference.

  • digdigby

    An interesting sidelight. Even with just surgeon general warnings on cigarette packs, when heavy smokers were asked what they estimated their chances were of getting lung cancer, emphysema and having a heart attack because of smoking they OVER estimated the actual danger (considerable as it is). Another words, they estimated themselves more likely to get lung cancer than they actually were.

    I can see, at a stretch, the government’s desire to inform smokers of their risks but when smokers KNOW the risks and even over-estimate the risks as it is, this is mind games and behaviorist manipulation.

  • Chloe

    It’s a difficult situation, but if they’re that concerned about manipulation, they can store their cigarettes in a different case and stand up for themselves. Geesh.

    When I told my HIGHLY politically conservative physician mother about this, she cheered. Her patients “say” they understand the “risks” but they don’t realize the other ways it breaks down their bodies, and often they come to her with chronic pain, an immune system limping along, pneumonia, premature aging, and even a huge propensity for the common cold without any idea that smoking MIGHT have something to do with these other, relatively “minor” health issues that are making their daily lives miserable.

    Fighting with patients day in and day out about their smoking habits takes a toll on health care providers, and while patients may understand the illnesses related, they often don’t understand how it inflames their arthritis, lowers the fighting response of their immune system and overall lessens their quality of life, even if they don’t get one of the heavy hitters. Just because they “understand” doesn’t mean they stop, which is the goal. They’ve been desensitized to the point of perhaps needing a visual. They understand the risks verbatim, but they haven’t fully grasped what they mean.

    Smoking tobacco breaks down your body, even if you don’t develop a disease. It is never, under any circumstance, beneficial. Unlike, ironically, medical marijuana.

    Whether or not it is the governments place is a valid question, but I’m pretty sure the PCP’s of the world were planning to tape on such visuals in a few weeks, anyway. Desensitized smokers are making their jobs difficult by failing to realize the problems that could be flat out avoided by stopping.

    She was also hopeful that it would make young kids less likely to sneak a pack from their parents or think it is “cool”.

  • Mary

    OTOH, smoking is an anti-depressant — I wonder if they factor that in.