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Tougher Health Warnings Are Free With Every Pack

Dead bodies and diseased lungs are among the graphic images the U.S. government may require for cigarette packaging and advertising, part of its stepped-up war on tobacco.

The proposed warning labels grew out of a 2009 law that gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products.

The color images, which accompany such warnings as "Smoking can kill you," offer the highest-profile illustration yet of a broad federal effort to persuade adults to quit smoking and prevent young people from starting.

In 2009, about a fifth of Americans smoked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The government aims to bring the adult smoking rate down to 12% by 2020.

More than 30 nations now put graphic warnings on tobacco packages, including pictures of neck cancers and gangrenous limbs, as well as drooping cigarettes to warn of erectile dysfunction.

The proposed warning labels are tamer, but every pack will still be "a mini-billboard that tells the truth about smoking," said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

Reynolds American Inc., Lorillard Inc., Commonwealth Brands Inc. and other tobacco companies are challenging the new requirement in federal court. The companies sued the FDA last year, arguing that graphic-labeling and other marketing requirements are violations of free speech.

"Whatever people feel about tobacco use, that does not allow all the protections of the First Amendment to be thrown out," said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers, which supports the tobacco companies' lawsuit.

Whether such labels reduce smoking isn't clear. Smoking rates among Canadians ages 15 and older dropped three percentage points between 2000 and 2002 after warning labels were introduced, the FDA said. But other tobacco prevention measures, such as cigarette tax increases and new restrictions on public smoking, came at the same time.

In a 2001 survey sponsored by the Canadian Cancer Society, 44% of smokers said the warning labels increased their motivation to quit. The Institute of Medicine, a U.S. federal advisory body, concluded in a 2007 report that graphic warnings would help dampen consumption.

"There is evidence from other parts of the world that these graphic warning labels do make a difference," Dr. Hamburg said in an interview.

Commonwealth Brands, the fourth-largest U.S. cigarette maker by sales, took issue Wednesday with proposed labels that use cartoon images. One depicts a person injecting a cigarette into their arm like a drug syringe. "Warning! Cigarettes are addictive," the label reads.

"I'm appalled that some of these warnings resemble comic-book-type pictures, and these come from a health agency whose prime goal is to dissuade youth access to tobacco," said Anthony Hemsley, vice president of corporate and government affairs for Commonwealth, a unit of U.K.-based tobacco giant Imperial Tobacco Group PLC.

The FDA will choose nine of the 36 proposed images in June, allowing time for public comment and a consumer study. Cigarette makers will be required to begin using the new warning labels by October 2012; the images must take up at least half of a cigarette pack, or 20% of an ad's space.

A Reynolds spokesman said the company, which makes Camels, was reviewing Wednesday's announcement and would respond to the FDA's request for public comment, "If we believe it's appropriate."

Altria Group Inc., parent of Philip Morris USA, the largest U.S. cigarette maker, is not involved in the federal-court challenge and was the only big tobacco company to support the FDA tobacco law. It did not comment on the proposed graphic-warning labels.


Betsy McKay and David Kesmodel, The Wall Street Journal. November 11, 2010

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