The Scarification of Cigarettes


Dry little warnings printed on the package didn’t do the job. Thirty years of dire public service announcements didn’t get it done, either. Education isn’t working, even though the statistics should be enough to ensure nobody ever smokes again, anywhere on earth. Despite all this effort, and despite the fact that 5.4 million people die as a direct result of smoking each year, people still smoke.

Think about that for a minute. Smoke doesn’t taste good, at least not at first. On the contrary, for most people, smoking is pretty unpleasant at first. It hurts your lungs, stings your eyes, and makes you do some pretty uncool coughing. It leaves a nasty taste in your mouth and a nasty lingering odor on your clothes. And yet people continue. The first time is understandable. You’re a kid, your friends do it, you want to conform, to look more grown up, to be cool. It’s the persistence that baffles me.

The FDA has recently taken a new approach to inform people about how deadly smoking is. Since you might not have a timely reminder when you’re lighting up, new packaging will feature graphic, in-your-face ads depicting the dangers and consequences of smoking. Next year, smokers will tap cigarettes out of packages that look like this:

The FDA hopes that the timing of these graphic messages, delivered in the moment a smoker decides to light up, will act as a deterrent. Other images include a man presumably dead with post-autopsy staples, a grief-stricken woman with a message that nonsmokers are also at risk, and blackened, diseased lungs on a split screen with pink, healthy lungs. A total of nine images were chosen to represent different aspects of smoking. One depicts a quitter opening a button up shirt like Superman to proudly display a tee shirt emblazoned with “I Quit” under a no-smoking icon. The graphics will be displayed on the top half of each cigarette package, front and back. They will also be displayed on all cigarette advertising.

The new graphic labels will hit the shelves in September of 2012, and the FDA hopes to see a reduction of 213,000 smokers 2013, and smaller numbers dropping out each year after. However, this prediction is not without detractors. Some research indicates that the graphic pictures may reinforce the habit for smokers whose self-esteem is identified with smoker’s image.

A similar program is working in Canada, but not as well as predicted, possibly because there aren’t enough government-sponsored smoking cessation programs.

Not surprisingly, the big tobacco companies aren’t exactly jumping for joy. R.J. Reynolds has filed a lawsuit charging that the warning labels constitute an affront to their constitutional right to free speech.

Twenty years ago, Dennis Leary, comedian and dedicated smoker, pointed out that smokers have an amazing ability to ignore warnings. His spot-on comedy routine included this pearl of wisdom:

“You could have cigarettes that come in a black pack with a skull and crossbones on the front called “Tumors,” and smokers would line up around the block saying, “I can’t wait to get my hands on these [bleeping] things.””

What do you think? Will smokers pick up a pack, look at the picture on the package, and decide to chew gum instead? And just as interestingly, what will this reveal about the true power of advertising? How often do we see violent video games and music marketed to youths and cited in incidences of violence? If graphic images serve as effective deterrents on cigarette packaging, will the results spill over to other markets? Should be interesting, however it shakes out.

Tera Rowland
Contributor Tera Rowland

Tera Rowland is the vice president of Soliant and has worked in the healthcare staffing industry for almost 20 years in public relations, social media, marketing and operations. In addition to Soliant, Tera worked at the Mayo Clinic as an internal communication manager and for the Children’s Miracle Network. She is a member of the American Marketing Association and the American Staffing Association. Also, Tera has served on the board of directors for the Jacksonville Women’s Leadership Forum as part of the communication committee. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Relations as well as a Master of Business Administration in Marketing from the University of North Florida and has been published in the Huffington Post, Healthcare Finance News, Healthcare Traveler Magazine, and Scrubs Magazine. Make sure to read the rest of Tera's blogs!