The federal government wants to scare the living hell out of you—at least if you’re thinking about smoking. This week, the Food and Drug Administration previewed a series of new warnings that it plans to have plastered on all cigarette products and advertisements. And they’re a doozy.
The proposed warnings, 13 in total, feature much of the same text that can already be found on cigarettes, noting the health risks of long-term smoking. These include various cancers, degenerative lung disease, vision problems, and type 2 diabetes. But they now also feature “photo-realistic” images that show in disturbing detail what these health problems look like up close; they’ll be also large enough to fill half the product’s front and back.
“With these new proposed cigarette health warnings, we have an enormous public health opportunity to fulfill our statutory mandate and increase the public’s understanding of the full scope of serious negative health consequences of cigarette smoking,” said acting FDA commissioner Ned Sharpless in a statement Thursday.
This isn’t the first time the FDA has tried to implement more visceral cigarette warnings. In 2011, it attempted to go ahead with realistic color images on products. But the tobacco industry filed a lawsuit, claiming the warnings violated its First Amendment rights. Following an appeals court ruling in the industry’s favor, the FDA announced in 2013 that it wouldn’t go ahead with those warnings.
According to the agency, the new images won’t violate any laws, and are solely meant to educate the public about the health risks of smoking. But it’s unlikely the industry will simply give in without a fight.
“We firmly support public awareness of the harms of smoking cigarettes, but the manner in which those messages are delivered to the public cannot run afoul of the First Amendment protections that apply to all speakers, including cigarette manufacturers,” Neassa Hollon, a spokeswoman for the tobacco giant RJ Reynolds, told the New York Times on Thursday.
Though smoking rates have steadily declined over the years, with fewer new smokers every year, smoking remains one of the most significant public health threats in the U.S. And countries elsewhere have long since adopted more graphic tobacco warnings.
“Given that tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., there’s a lot at stake to ensure the public understands these risks,” Sharpless said.
Because of several recent lawsuits won by public health groups, the FDA has been forced to implement new regulatory rules on the tobacco (and vaping) industry sooner than planned. As such, barring any legal challenges, these new warnings should be finalized by March next year, and companies would then have 15 months to place them on their products.