The FDA’s fear-based labels

Should we put enlarged hearts on fast food bags and spotted livers on alcohol bottles, too?

by Raghav Mehta

Last Thursday, as a part of an effort to prevent tobacco use, the U.S. Drug and Food Administration unveiled and proposed 36 warning labels to appear on cigarette packages by late 2012. Unsurprisingly, the labels have generated a bit of a controversy. Their âÄúgraphicâÄù content depicts everything from a mother cavalierly blowing smoke onto her baby to a pair of disease-stricken lungs set alongside captions spelling out the hazards of cigarette use.
While the FDAâÄôs good intentions are commendable in some capacity, the cynic inside me canâÄôt help but do anything other than roll his eyes. Now I donâÄôt mean to be insensitive or downplay what are the obvious health hazards associated with tobacco use, but the FDAâÄôs strategy here isnâÄôt just head scratching, itâÄôs downright laughable.
First off, unless youâÄôve been living on the moon for the past three decades, suffer from some uniquely dangerous case of ignorance, or spend most of your waking hours in an ether-fueled stupor, the effects of tobacco use should in no way surprise you. Since their days of recess and long division, every John and Jane Q. Public has endured a fair share of negative campaigning addressing the dangers of cigarettes. The facts are already lodged deep within our societyâÄôs cultural conscience, and this proposal is yet another glaring example of the federal governmentâÄôs rankling relentlessness. But itâÄôs an approach so inane, so staggeringly stupid, youâÄôd only expect to see it in a faux article in The Onion or maybe, oh I donâÄôt know, on Glenn BeckâÄôs show.
According to U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Howard Koh, the labels âÄî which are required under a tobacco regulation bill passed last summer âÄî are aimed to âÄúreinvigorate the national commitment to ending the tobacco epidemic.âÄù
But if the FDAâÄôs idea of reinforcement is a prevention strategy that employs fear through over-the-top, worst-case scenario images to evoke an emotional response, then I think we have bigger problems that warrant our attention.
While weâÄôre on the topic of epidemics, what about the countryâÄôs alarming rise in obesity rates? In a 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates accounted for a little more than a quarter of the U.S. population and are often highlighted as a âÄúfactor contributing to several leading causes of death including heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and several types of cancer.âÄù
Applying the same rationale, why donâÄôt we attach pictures of obstructed coronary arteries and enlarged hearts onto bags of fast food while weâÄôre at it?
And how did we overlook alcohol? As our publicâÄôs moral overlords exhaust themselves relentlessly beating the proverbial drum with anti-smoking campaigns, glamorous advertisements celebrating the wonders of alcohol âÄî a substance equally as dangerous and responsible for thousands of deaths each year âÄî run rampant, saturating nearly every sector of our society.
So while cigarettes get treated with redundant slide shows of doom and gloom, alcohol distributors get rewarded with four hours of ad space during the Super Bowl and a couple hundred cutesy promotional billboards, just so long as they remember to remind consumers to âÄúDrink responsibly.âÄù
ItâÄôs entirely possible that the warning labels could be effective. But the issue at hand isnâÄôt efficacy; itâÄôs the fear-based approach the FDA is taking. If you decide to quit smoking: Good for you, Mazel Tov. But just donâÄôt do it because some tasteless warning label inspired you.