Cigarettes are not only harmful to smokers, but everyone around them. It’s not a new message, but it will be delivered in a new way come September, if the Food and Drug Administration has its way.
Graphic warning labels are to cover the top 50 percent of cigarette packs, both front and back, and must also make up 20 percent of any tobacco advertisement. They are required under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which was passed in 2009 and gives the FDA the power to regulate the tobacco industry.
But four of the nation’s five top tobacco firms have filed a lawsuit against the FDA claiming that the warnings violate their right to free speech. Philip Morris USA is the only company not participating in the litigation.
The nine images include blackened lungs, yellowed teeth, a man wearing an oxygen mask, another with smoke coming out of the tracheotomy hole in his neck and a dead man with an autopsy scar over his chest.
“Consider this, a pack a day smoker will see these labels more than 7,000 times a year and kids who are under the impression that smoking is cool or glamorous will be confronted by a very different reality when they are tempted to pick up a cigarette pack,” Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA, said in a video on the agency’s website.
Cigarette smoking kills an estimated 443,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
“For years the tobacco industry has promoted images suggesting use of their product will somehow bring you glamour, when tragically we know that the exact opposite is true,” Howard Koh, assistant secretary of health for the Department of Health and Human Services said in a video on the FDA’s website.
The cigarette health warnings were selected from a panel of 36 images that the FDA developed and put out for public comment. The agency also conducted its own research, the largest consumer study of cigarette warnings ever conducted, with some 18,000 participants.
City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), a smoker for 47 years, started at age 14. She quit in 2002 and knows first-hand how addictive tobacco can be as well as the stigma associated with being an elected official who smokes.
“You don’t want others to see you smoke, because you know it’s not the right thing to do,” Koslowitz said. “I knew I should stop.”
The lawmaker even burned her hair on one occasion when she was trying to hide a lit cigarette from then-City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr., who she said was very “gung-ho about not smoking.”
She also recalled how lighting up became a chore over the years, getting banned from numerous places including restaurants, parks and City Hall. “Smoking became bothersome,” Koslowitz said. “You couldn’t smoke in places where you enjoyed cigarettes most. It was just too annoying.”
The lawmaker’s family also had a hand in her decision to kick the habit. “My grandson used to see me smoking — I wouldn’t smoke near him — and he used to say, ‘Grandma you’re going to die,’” Koslowitz recalled. “That really got to me.”
Koslowitz was able to quit through the use of a nicotine patch and says she has not had the desire to light up again. She said she doesn’t think the new FDA warnings are necessary because she believes people are well aware of the negative side effects of smoking. She thinks the government should focus more on raising awareness about the ills of excessive alcohol consumption. “Why don’t they put a picture of a car hitting a person on a bottle of liquor?” she asked.
Koslowitz also had some advice for those who continue to puff away. “If I could give up smoking then anyone can do it,” she said. “I can’t see myself ever going back.”
Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica) is also a former smoker, but he quit long before becoming an elected official. He started at the age of 10 and smoked for 20 years, before quitting cold turkey in 1981. The decision came after a close relative of Scarborough’s became sick with a smoking-related illness.
“My advice to anyone who smokes is to quit,” Scarborough said. “It’s not good for your health. That’s beyond debate. If you tried to quit and were unsuccessful, keep trying. It’s worth it.”
The lawmaker said that he supports the new graphic warning labels and hopes they will cause more people to kick the habit. “They need to understand the consequences,” Scarborough said. “The measure of their potential effectiveness is demonstrated by the tobbacco company’s suing so they won’t use them.”
Scarborough said although there may be a stigma associated with being an elected official who smokes, he would not look down on anyone who decides to light up.
“Elected officials are looked at as meters and role models and we should be, but we have the same frailties, battles and issues as everyone else does,” Scarborough said. “I certainly would not judge someone who smokes.”