Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Worth a Thousand Words

Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration unveiled the warning labels that will now adorn cigarette packages.

Well, they're supposed to be in place by September of next year so they won't start showing up at your neighborhood convenience store for awhile.

But, when they do, the difference will be — as the commissioner of food and drugs for the FDA said — "dramatic."

The overall appearances of cigarette packages will be changed. Warning labels have been printed innocuously on one side of cigarette packages (where they were easy for smokers to ignore) for years, and the language was ambiguous.

But the FDA's new labels will wrap around packages, sharing the space that presently belongs only to the brand name. They will be impossible for smokers to ignore — in no small part because the new generation of labels will carry graphic illustrations of the damage that smoking can do to people.

Now, I have always heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. I guess I have been reluctant to accept that because I am a writer. The idea of images having more influence than words contradicts my lifelong belief in the power of the pen.

But I have seen enough to know that, for the majority of people, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

It's really hard to forget a strong visual image. It's a lot easier to forget words, even words of wisdom.

Words of wisdom are often overlooked. But the words of wisdom on these new labels won't be open to interpretation.

For most of my adult life, I was a smoker. When I think back on that period in my life, I guess I actually read those labels a handful of times — enough to know what they said — but the information never really sank in. Most of the time, I was aware the labels were there, but I always managed to keep them from my sight. I would place a package with the label facing away from me or with the label blocked by something.

Would I have become addicted to smoking if I had been confronted with big labels every time I lit up? Probably not. (If you are a pack–a–day smoker, you will have to look at those labels about 7,300 times per year.)

And I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been drawn to smoking if I had seen full–color pictures of diseased lungs or hearts.

I hear that's part of the strategy. The images that were selected for the labels were chosen after focus groups indicated to the FDA that they were the most effective at repulsing specific groups, such as teenagers and pregnant women.

The new labels are designed to convey the image that smoking is not cool, which is good — to a point.

Nicotine is a crafty foe, as I have said before. It starts as a habit, but it quietly seizes control. As a long–term strategy, it is wise to discourage smoking at all. It's better than having to deal with that addiction phase.

(Someday, I'd like to see the FDA mandate labels that say something like "TOBACCO COMPANIES HAVE MANIPULATED THE NICOTINE CONTENT IN THEIR PRODUCTS TO MAKE THEM MORE ADDICTIVE." Talk about honesty in advertising.)

It is important, as I have written here before, for people to stop treating smoking like a "habit" that one can control — and start treating it like an addiction, which people cannot control. Perhaps, one day, we truly will.

But, in the meantime, I think the new labels are a step in the right direction.

The new labels are an honest and unflinching look at something that has been glamorized far too long — and, as a result, far too many people have become sick and died.

Ordinarily, I'm not in favor of government interference in personal decisions.

By my own choice, I haven't had a cigarette in more than four years. But that is the point. It was my choice.

I have told my friends who still smoke that I will never tell them what they should or should not do. Cigarette smoking is a legal activity for adults (typically, 18 or older), and I will not tell anyone not to do something that I did for many years.

I will give them my opinion — but only if they ask for it — and I definitely do have an opinion about smoking. Few of my smoking friends have asked me for my opinion, though, so I'm glad that the FDA will be requiring these labels.

They'll get my point across for me — and I won't have to say a word — much less a thousand of 'em.

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