A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Cigarette Warning Labels

In December 2010, I read that Health Canada was proposing new regulations for cigarette warning labels. These included a new series of warnings and larger accompanying photos, increasing the package space devoted to these warnings from 50% to 75%.

As a non-smoker and someone who is allergic to tobacco smoke, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who despises smoking more than I. While I applaud every attempt to discourage smoking, one would assume that I would be overjoyed by these new proposals. On the contrary – I think that these new warning labels are a waste of time and effort. Let me explain my view, from The Bob Angle.

A few days after hearing this announcement, I was watching a news story about it. The people interviewed by the reporter didn’t seem particularly fazed or even concerned. All but one said that they would not quit or even alter the frequency of their smoking.

The smokers with whom I am acquainted share a similar outlook. They are all aware of the health dangers of their habit, and are also unperturbed. The feedback I’ve received from them has been consistent: they understand the consequences, don’t feel ashamed of their habit, will quit they’re ready, and no amount of lecturing, preaching, cajoling or scare-mongering – via well-meaning friends or graphic warning labels – is going to change anything.

While I think it’s admirable for Health Canada to once again remind smokers of the damage that smoking causes to their health, I think that their efforts should be refocused, so that this initiative will be much more beneficial to society.

Currently, the warning fall into two categories – I call them inward-looking and outward-looking. The inward-looking messages refer to the damage that smokers are doing to themselves, and the outward-looking messages focus on the damage that smokers are doing to others. So, what percentage of the current warning labels are inward-looking and outward-looking?

I decided to do a little research and examine the existing cigarette warning labels. I’d like to show you the actual photographs, but the pictures are copyrighted and (in an irony that certainly escapes me) reproduction is prohibited. I have labelled these warnings as follows: inward-looking, marked by an (I), and outward-looking, marked by an (O). Messages that apply to both the smoker and the environment are marked with (IO).

  1. (I) Cigarettes are highly addictive
  2. (O) Children see, children do
  3. (O) Cigarettes hurt babies
  4. (I) Tobacco use can make you impotent
  5. (O) Don’t poison us
  6. (O) Tobacco smoke hurts babies
  7. (I) Cigarettes cause strokes
  8. (I) Cigarettes cause mouth disease
  9. (I) Each year, the equivalent of a small city dies from tobacco use
  10. (I) Cigarettes leave you breathless
  11. (I) Cigarettes are a heartbreaker
  12. (I) Cigarettes cause lung cancer
  13. (I) Cigarettes cause lung cancer
  14. (IO) Idle but deadly
  15. (IO) Where there’s smoke, there’s hydrogen cyanide
  16. (O) You’re not the only one smoking this cigarette

Totals: 11 inward-looking, 7 outward-looking.

Now let’s look at the new proposed warning labels, using the same inward and outward-looking categorizations. These photographs are also copyrighted and cannot be reproduced here.

  1. (I) “I wish I had never started smoking.”
  2. (I) Cigarettes are a major cause of heart disease
  3. (I) Oral cancer [photo of a cancer-riddled tongue]
  4. (I) A single stroke can leave you helpless
  5. (I) “Just breathing is torture.”
  6. (O) Tobacco smoke hurts everyone [photo of an empty crib]
  7. (I) “Remember the power of the cigarette. Remember this face and that smoking killed me”
  8. (I) Another premature death [coroner pulling a sheet over a body]
  9. (O) Smoking in the car hurts more than just you
  10. (I) Vision loss
  11. (I) This is what dying of cancer looks like [black and white photo of a skeletal cancer patient]
  12. (O) Tobacco smoke? No thanks [pregnant woman with exposed belly]
  13. (O) Cigarette addiction affects generations [photo of mother and daughter]
  14. (I) When you smoke, it shows
  15. (O) Your kids are sick of your smoking
  16. (I) Cigarettes cause bladder cancer

Totals: 11 inward-looking, 5 outward-looking

Compare the totals – what I dislike about the new proposed warning labels is that the series is more inward-looking than outward-looking than the current series.

Personally, I believe that the inward-looking messages will be largely ineffective, because they will not teach smokers anything they don’t already know, and I don’t believe that any amount of preaching in the form of warnings or graphic imagery is going to cause an epiphany or even make an appreciable difference.

The smokers I know are kind and decent people, and are very respectful of others – if there are non-smokers nearby or if someone is sensitive to tobacco smoke, they are always accommodating. I also believe that this considerate attitude is prevalent among all smokers. Therefore, I think that the best use of the package space currently occupied by warning labels will be to make smokers more aware of the ways in which their habit is detrimental to others.

There is a tremendous opportunity here that I think is being overlooked – in my view, the space on cigarette packages reserved for warning labels should have an entirely outward-looking philosophy. Instead of preaching to those who are already aware of the damage they are causing themselves, let’s use the space to make smokers more aware of the detrimental effects that their habit has on others. Here are my suggestions for a new series of graphics-free etiquette statements, which will convey a new completely outward-looking sentiment: “We know you’re going to keep smoking, so in the meantime, let’s all try to get along”.

  1. Don’t smoke in front of the doorways to office buildings, malls or community centres.
  2. Always ask others if they mind if you smoke.
  3. Don’t smoke inside a non-smoker’s home.
  4. Never smoke near pregnant women, infants or children.
  5. Don’t smoke in or near children’s playgrounds.
  6. Don’t smoke while driving, unless it’s your car and you are the only occupant.
  7. Don’t throw your cigarette butts out of your car window – use your car’s ashtray.
  8. Don’t throw your cigarette butts on the ground, especially if they are still lit.
  9. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after smoking.
  10. Don’t smoke in wooded areas.

I think that more can be accomplished by accepting that smokers are going continue to indulge themselves until they decide it’s time to quit, that preaching and scare tactics will be largely ineffective, and until smokers make that personal decision to abandon their habit, that the cigarette package real estate should be used to help us all exist harmoniously.

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