It’s one thing to read it, but it’s another to see it.
At least, that’s what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hopes with newly proposed health warnings in the form of graphic images that could be required on cigarette packages in the future.
Instead of a block of black text on the side of a pack of cigarettes, the new labels will take up half of the front side. As someone unravels the plastic to grab a cigarette, they’ll see images like a cup of bloody urine, or a sick child gasping for breath through a ventilator with the words “tobacco smoke can harm your children.”
These new warnings only pertain to cigarettes — and not e-cigs, for example — as other tobacco products have different required warnings, according to FDA spokesperson Michael Felberbaum.
Currently, cigarettes contain the same rotating set of four Surgeon General’s warnings that they’ve had since 1984.
Adult smokers have decreased statewide by about 6.7% between 2002 and 2016, with those written warning labels on the sides of packs.
Meanwhile, the number of adult smokers here in Charlotte, Sarasota and DeSoto counties is also on the decline, but there’s still a significant chunk of them who still are lighting up.
According to 2016 estimates, in Sarasota County, about 13.9% still do, and around 15% were still smoking in Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
Adult smoking here falls below statewide averages, but would these proposed warnings reduce the numbers even more?
Do warnings deter smokers?
“They’re not noticeable to most people anymore,” said current smoker and Port Charlotte resident Muhammad Salameh. “When I buy a pack of cigarettes, I don’t think about the general warning because I’ve read it hundreds of times before.”
The labels seem to prevent future smokers from smoking rather than deter current smokers, according to smoking cessation specialist and registered nurse Tammy Simon.
For example, when Simon showed her daughter the graphic images, “she looked at it and said she’d never start smoking.”
“I hope it will motivate people to quit, too,” she said. The most effective way to cut down on new and current smokers is to raise the price of cigarettes, though, Simon added.
Diane Ramseyer, the executive director for Drug Free Charlotte County, works with her team to talk to kids in schools about the health consequences of smoking cigarettes.
“It’s really important for us to get that messaging out to youth,” Ramseyer said. “It’s easier to prevent something from happening than trying to deal with it after the fact.”
Since Drug Free Charlotte County’s implementation, the rate of kids recognizing the harm that could come from tobacco products has risen, along with their perception of peer and parental disapproval.
But what about for those who already smoke?
The FDA developed and tested these new warnings to promote greater public understanding of smoking’s negative health consequences. More than 24 different smoking-related diseases have been identified, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and 10 different forms of cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Graphic labels aren’t new
Some countries already have these labels. The labels, which were implemented in Canada in 2000, caused smokers to more likely intend to quit in the next six months, according to a 2003 study published in the Tobacco Control journal.
However, Salameh doesn’t think the labels will have any impact.
“More graphic/colorful warning labels won’t change a thing,” he said.
Salamah said in an email to the Sun that when he lived in Jordan, which had similar graphic warning labels: “that didn’t deter anyone from smoking … a label/disgusting image/warning won’t affect me what so ever.”
And behaviorally, people who smoke cigarettes know the risks, but they think they are less at risk.
“Smokers minimize the personal relevance of the risks: they do not believe that they are as much at risk as other smokers of becoming addicted or suffering health effects,” according to a study published by the Society of Behavioral Medicine.
“People need to know what motivates them to smoke in the first place,” said Simon, who does lung cancer screenings at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
Stress is the most often reason people say they smoke, according to Simon.
“Cigarettes don’t make stress go away,” she said, and can actually aggravate someone more by raising their heart rate and constricting their arteries.
The second most common reason is boredom.
“There’s no one golden way for everyone to quit, but a distraction is helpful.” Go do a chore, pick up a book, or call a friend, she suggests.
But no matter the reason, in order to quit “someone has to be ready and want to quit,” she said.
The FDA is seeking public comments for their proposal until October 15. To comment, click here.
Tobacco in Florida
Tobacco is a $4.9 million industry in Florida, one of the state’s smaller crops.
As of 2017, there were 19 agricultural operations growing the crop, harvesting 1,135 acres and 2.4 million pounds of tobacco, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
For comparison, there are 412,662 acres of citrus worth $1.2 billion, 178,000 acres of fruit and vegetable crops worth $6 billion and 1.2 million heads of cattle worth $1.1 billion.
Source: Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services
Thinking about stopping smoking?
Visit http://www.tobaccofreeflorida.com/quityourway/ to explore various resources.
Call 866-534-7909 to reach the Gulfcoast South Area Health Education Center’s tobacco referral line.
Originally published in the Charlotte Sun on Aug. 24, 2019.