The FDA should immediately introduce new graphic warning labels on tobacco products

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Graphic warning labels on tobacco products have been proven to deter individuals from smoking. In the United States, cigarettes and other tobacco products are required to contain text warning labels. However, tobacco labeling in the U.S. has not been updated for over 30 years. Currently, the size, location, and content of warning labels on tobacco packaging are inadequate, particularly when compared to the evidence on effective tobacco labeling and the warning labels used in other countries.

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Photo credit: turbosquid.com and tobaccocontrol.bmj.com

In 2009 the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was passed, which required the FDA to establish and enforce new regulations for graphic warning labels on all tobacco products. However, tobacco companies succeeded in halting the FDA from implementing the new rule requiring graphic warning labels in 2012 by winning lawsuits, claiming that it violated their First Amendment rights. These legal cases left the FDA to come up with new rules for graphic warning labels, but no action has been taken for the four years since this court ruling. After waiting more than seven years since the legislation of the Tobacco Control Act, eight public health and professional organizations filed a lawsuit requesting the court to compel the FDA to comply with the agency’s statutory duty to propose lawful graphic warning labels. They claimed that over three million Americans, including minors, have begun to smoke during that time.

Given the high stakes for the health of the American public and the abundant evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of graphic warning labels in reducing smoking, the FDA cannot afford to delay graphic warning label requirements any longer. The FDA must do everything in its power to immediately design and require pictorial warning labels on tobacco product that meet federal and international standards.

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5 Responses to “The FDA should immediately introduce new graphic warning labels on tobacco products”

  1. aosho1 Says:

    The power and resources available to the tobacco industry is outstanding and ridiculously vast. In the past they have sued other country’s that have tried to take similar policy action for labeling and packaging. The FDA has to be firm in supporting whatever action they choose to take because the tobacco industry will not spare any expense in trying to undermine whatever action the FDA decides to take on this matter.

  2. egorshein Says:

    Powerful post – and I agree. A picture is worth a thousand words. Tobacco products have significant health risks, including cancer (i.e. lung, head and neck), heart and lung disease, and stroke. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for smokers to pick up the habit without fully appreciating its potentially lethal adverse effects. A friend of mine in medical school quit smoking when he observed the deleterious effects of tobacco use on patients in the operating room. Increasing graphic warnings and making them more conspicuous likely will not eliminate tobacco use altogether. I suspect that there are users who willfully or negligently ignore the details when they purchase these products. However, we need to increase consumer awareness of these ill-effects so as to hopefully further deter individuals from smoking.

  3. oyetunjiblog Says:

    I completely agree with you. I think there will still be a subset of people who will ignore graphic warning labels – likely those who are currently smoking. But the impact can be monumental amongst those who are considering picking up the habit. I was recently in Morocco and their graphic warning labels were legendary. And despite that, I witnessed more than 3 people purchasing cigarettes during a 5 minute wait in line.

  4. tfruhau1 Says:

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post! Initially, it seems unfathomable that the FDA would not do everything in its power to impose graphic warning labels. But I found it interesting to look at it in the context of the sequence of events described in the NEJM commentary (to which you provided the link under “winning lawsuits”). That article describes that when the FDA decided not to appeal the courts’ decision to the Supreme Court, lawyers and anti-tobacco advocates were not as disgruntled as they had been in the past. They foresaw a Supreme Court ruling as potentially more damaging for future public health efforts if it were to defend commercial freedom of speech. This highlights the strategic approach that advocacy must take and perhaps an aspect that should be taken into consideration when assessing the successes of advocacy efforts. A successful campaign not only achieves its immediate goal but also sets the stage for further successes and does not restrain the wins of other health advocacy efforts. While the benefits of graphic warning labels cannot be contradicted, the path to actualizing them may be a careful balancing act!

  5. bdelarmente Says:

    Thank you for bringing this to light. I didn’t know that the US already has legislation about labels on cigarette packaging similar to what has already been adopted in other countries. I definitely agree with your point. Smoking prevalence remains relatively high in the US, with an estimated 19% of adults reporting to have smoked cigarettes in 2011, which is still above the Health People 2020 target of 12%. In addition, smoking prevalence remains high among lower-income, and less-educated individuals. These graphic labels send a strong message upfront about the harms of smoking and thus may be more effective in the aforementioned vulnerable populations especially since they may have been exposed less to health education or behavioral counseling through any health provider. I am quite saddened that tobacco companies have such power to block the full implementation of the law. If other countries have decided that these labels aren’t infringements of the freedom of speech and instead are a necessary measure to protect the public’s health, why can’t the US do the same?

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