The old cigarette warnings inform consumers of straightforward facts, such as: "Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy" and "Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health." Thanks in part to such labels, Americans today fully grasp that smoking is unsafe.
But the point of the new labels is not to ensure that potential and actual smokers understand the hazards of the habit and make an informed choice. The point is to get people to avoid cigarettes whether they want to or not.
The Food and Drug Administration finds it intolerable that despite all the efforts to stamp out smoking -- through tobacco taxes, advertising restrictions, educational campaigns and smoking bans -- nearly 50 million Americans continue to puff away. The hope is that repeated assaults with nauseating photos will kill the urge.
So anyone electing to smoke will have to run a gauntlet of horrors: a corpse, a diseased lung, rotting gums and a smoker exhaling through a tracheotomy hole.
All this is made possible thanks to legislation passed in 2009 and signed by President Barack Obama. If it sounds like the sort of bossy, intrusive, big-government approach championed by Democrats, it is. But it passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses, with most Senate Republicans in support.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius imagines that the FDA is filling an unfortunate information gap. With these labels, she says, "every person who picks up a pack of cigarettes is going to know exactly what risk they're taking."
By "every person," she means every person who's been trapped at the bottom of a well for the past 50 years. Everyone else already knew. Cigarette companies have had to provide health warnings since the 1960s. The current labels allow no fond illusions about the fate awaiting tobacco addicts.
Sebelius apparently thinks the health information has been widely overlooked. Not to worry. Vanderbilt University law professor W. Kip Viscusi has found that smokers greatly overestimate the risk of dying from ailments caused by tobacco. If the government wanted to make sure that Americans were accurately informed, it would have to tell them smoking is considerably less dangerous than they assume.