Stark warnings on cigarette packs aim to deter smokers
Watching her father die of cancer didn't stop Diane Paight from taking up smoking at age 16 and continuing the habit for much of her life.
But the 64-year-old Stratford resident said a series of graphic, disturbing cigarette labels recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration might have kept her from lighting up.
The nine labels -- unveiled Tuesday and expected to hit a cigarette pack near you by September 2012 -- contain anti-smoking messages, accompanied by illustrations. One, which bears the warning "Cigarettes are addictive," has a picture of a man smoking through a tracheotomy hole in his throat. Another, features the words
"Warning: Tobacco smoke may harm your children," and shows a woman blowing smoke in a child's face.
Paight got a glimpse of the new labels Tuesday while at the office of Gretchen May-Fendo, outpatient pulmonary coordinator at Bridgeport Hospital. Paight has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a common lung disease for which smoking is the leading cause.
Though she tried quitting many times, Paight didn't give up for good until recently, and that was only because she was unable to breathe when she smoked.
Even though losing her dad didn't prevent her from picking up this life-threatening habit, she thinks the new labels would have quelled her desire for a smoke. The labels, with their intense imagery, are frightening, Paight said, and the visceral reaction they cause might have turned her off to the habit sooner.
"To quit smoking, you've got to be really scared," she said.
May-Fendo agreed the labels are powerful, and thinks they might prevent potential new smokers from lighting up -- particularly teenagers. However, she's not sure the images will be enough to get longtime smokers to quit. She showed the new labels to several patients on Tuesday, and Paight was the only one who said they would have inspired her to quit.
"The thing is with smoking is that it's such an addiction, that I don't think a picture is going to get them to stop," May-Fendo said.
Still, she believes anything that makes smoking less attractive is a step forward. "I'm just such an advocate for quitting smoking, because I see the effects of it every day," May-Fendo said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is responsible for 443,000 deaths each year, and costs the economy nearly $200 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity. In Connecticut, the state Department of Public Health estimates more than 450,000 adults in the state are cigarette smokers, including 58,000 middle and high school students. About 4,900 people die from smoking-related diseases in Connecticut each year.
The warning labels were proposed in November 2010 and are required under the Family Prevention and Tobacco Control Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. The FDA selected the images from 36 after analyzing the results of an 18,000-person study and weighing more than 1,700 comments from a variety of groups, including the tobacco industry, retailers and health professionals. Each warning on the packaging is accompanied by the number for a smoking cessation hot line, 1-800-QUIT-NOW. The images and warnings will eventually appear on all cigarette packs, cartons and ads.
Health professionals like the new approach. David Kaufman, section chief of pulmonary critical care and sleep medicine at Bridgeport Hospital, said he didn't want to predict whether the new labels will help extinguish smoking addictions, but he hopes they do. "Anything that's likely to deter people from smoking or make them think about quitting is a positive thing for public health," Kaufman said.
Unlike some, he doesn't find the warning images that extreme. "A couple of them are reasonably graphic, but, in my line of work, I've seen a lot of things like that," he said. "They don't seem particularly scary to me, but I'm probably not a good barometer."
Daniel Cervonka, a substance abuse specialist at Yale-New Haven Hospital, whose mother died of lung cancer, applauded the labels. "This is such an intense (approach)," said Cervonka, who is also director of the physician assistant program at University of Bridgeport. "I don't see how it couldn't be effective."
Yet some area smokers called them unnecessarily graphic and predicted they won't stop anyone from smoking. "I think it's a big waste of time, energy and money," said Cathy Santossio, 53, of Ansonia.
Santossio, who started smoking 30 years ago, has tried to quit before, but always goes back. She said the ads likely won't make a dent.
"I know I should quit," she said. "Most smokers know it's a bad habit. And if we still smoke, knowing what we know, nothing like (the labels) is going to stop us."
Roshaynda Gallimore, 38, of Bridgeport, agreed. Gallimore has been a smoker for 10 years and wants to quit -- particularly since she's expecting her first grandchild. Quitting, she said, is something you have to want badly. And, like May-Fendo, Gallimore doesn't think the ads will move those who aren't ready to drop the habit. "You should have the will to stop on your own and not (be motivated by) some silly, nasty, disgusting ad," she said.
Despite the reservations of smokers like Gallimore and Santossio, at least one area tobacconist said he does worry the new labels will slow sales. "Some of the pictures are really graphic," said Gaglul Islam, manager of Brand Cigars in Monroe. "It will hurt business definitely."