By Thomas J. Glynn, PhD
OK, admit it - you have no idea what current cigarette packs in the U.S. have to say about the dangers of tobacco use. I've been working in this field for nearly 30 years and I'm not really sure, either. And we're not alone - very few of us remember that they say things like "Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health" in very tiny letters and are virtually hidden on one side of the pack.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced that the era of small, wordy, nearly invisible cigarette pack warnings is over. Beginning in September 2012, cigarette packs in the U.S. will be required to cover the top 50% of the front and back of every pack with graphic depictions of the consequences of tobacco use and warnings, in large letters, that say things such as "Cigarettes Cause Cancer" and "Smoking Can Kill You."
You can go here to see all nine of the images and warnings that will be on the packs starting next year. But beware - tobacco industry opponents of the new warnings have called them things like "ghoulish," "grisly," and "ghastly," and for once, they're not entirely wrong.
Of course, the big question with the new warnings is whether they will make a difference. Will they cause smokers to quit or cut back?
With so many other tobacco control activities going on at once -- higher tobacco taxes, increasing smokefree environments, greater availability of treatment for tobacco dependence, etc. -- it will be a bit difficult to tease out the specific effects of the new warning labels. But we do know that there are a number of countries - such as Canada, Australia, Thailand, and New Zealand - which have been pioneers in the placement of graphic warnings on their countries' cigarette packages. And what we have learned from their experience is that smokers in these countries are better-informed about the dangers of tobacco use, are more motivated to quit, and more likely to either cut back or stop smoking altogether.
Additionally, the World Health Organization, from their studies of the 39 countries in which graphic warning labels now exist, has determined that warnings which include pictures (similar to those the U.S. will soon have), compared to words alone:
- are more likely to be noticed;
- are rated more effective by tobacco users;
- are more likely to remain memorable over time;
- better communicate the health risks of tobacco use;
- provoke more thought about the health risks of tobacco use and about cessation;
- increase motivation and intentions to quit; and
- are associated with more attempts to quit.
Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, summarized the issue very succinctly, when he observed recently that "Graphic warning labels motivate smokers to quit and discourage nonsmokers from starting, are well accepted by the public, and can be effectively implemented at virtually no cost to governments."
So, stay tuned for the September 2012 debut of the new era and, even if you're as old as me, you can toss your reading glasses aside - you'll be able to see these warnings every time a cigarette smoker takes them out of their pocket, even if they're a mile away. And that's a good thing for all of us.
Thomas J. Glynn, PhD, is director of cancer science and trends and director of international cancer control for the American Cancer Society.