Our leaders think that since stark facts haven't done enough to deter tobacco use, scary images are in order. The FDA predicts that by 2013, the new warnings will diminish the total number of smokers in the United States by 213,000.
Contain your excitement. The agency admits that the overall effect is "highly uncertain" and that its estimate could be way off. Even if its forecast comes true, the change would cut the prevalence of smoking by less than one-half of 1 percent.
As it happens, there is not much reason to expect even this microscopic reduction to materialize. Last year, researchers commissioned by the FDA exposed adults and teens to such images to assess the likely impact. Despite the emotional punch of the pictures, they didn't seem to induce adults to stop smoking or deter teens from starting.
Based on the experience of other countries that have tried hideous photos, including Canada, Britain and Australia, Viscusi sees no grounds for optimism. "Smoking rates decline after the warnings but at the same rate as they did before the advent of warnings," he told me. "The key for judging whether there is likely to be an effect is whether the warnings shifted the trend in smoking rates in these other countries, and they did not."
Why not? Maybe because people already knew the risks. Maybe because most smokers enjoy tobacco enough not to care. Maybe because people soon learn to ignore the nasty pictures the way they tune out other warning messages.
The likely ineffectuality of this mandate does not discourage anti-tobacco crusaders. Its basic character, however, should spur everyone else to ask what business the federal government has interfering with a transaction between legal sellers and informed buyers who are minding their own business.
The new labels thrust the government further into gratuitous regulation of personal behavior, motivated less by medical concerns than moralism. Now, that's ugly.