COMMENTARY | I am a former smoker. I started on the cigarettes when I was young. I smoked for years. It was almost impossible to quit. I hope my daughters never start smoking. I wish no one’s sons or daughters would start. And yet, I agree with the U.S. appeals court’s decision on Friday to strike down a law requiring tobacco companies to place graphic pictures of the dangers of smoking on cigarette packages.
According to Reuters , Judge Janice Rogers Brown said of the 2-1 decision by the court in Washington that the case raises questions about the government’s authority to force a business to undermine its own economic interest “by making ‘every single pack of cigarettes in the country a mini billboard’ for the government’s anti-smoking message.”
And that is precisely my problem with the requirement. Warning labels are one thing, and they’ve been on every cigarette pack for a very long time. But to go further and say that graphic pictures of, for example, a man exhaling smoke through a hole in his throat, are over the top. People die from using a lot of products: cars, high-fat foods, alcohol, etc. In spite of the known and well-documented dangers, we don’t require graphic images of what might happen to people if they use those products. Why on earth would we make this exception with cigarettes?
According to the FDA, the graphic images on cigarette labels — which were supposed to make their debut in September — are necessary to warn consumers, particularly teenagers, of the risks of smoking. This effort is backed by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Their argument is bolstered by a recent U.S. Surgeon General warning that youth smoking has reached epidemic proportions.
Isn’t smoking illegal for people under 18, though? Isn’t it already illegal to market tobacco products to kids? It would seem to me, then, that the failure is not in properly portraying the risks to a group of people who largely live in the “won’t happen to me” mindset regardless of warnings. The failure is, rather, in the improper enforcement of cigarette laws that are already in place and perhaps a needed discussion about upping the legal age limit for buying cigarettes.
Will those two efforts stop all young people from smoking? No. But neither will graphic images on cigarette labels and the government taking an even bigger amount of control over what companies can do here in the Land of the Free. Yes, we have to try and protect the health of our young people. But we would probably do well to try to protect the free market for them as well.