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Archive for August, 2011

I was born and raised in North Carolina, where tobacco has been king for centuries. Driving through Pitt County, it’s nearly impossible not to pass a tobacco field and note the progress of the crop, whether it looks healthy, and even how it smells.

No one in my immediate family smokes, but tobacco has benefited us all. My maternal grandfather worked for a tobacco company, traveling often between North Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida. He provided for his wife and six children on his tobacco salary. Tobacco money put my mother and her siblings through college. Tobacco money helped fund every school I went to, from kindergarten to college. Both of my parents were in public education, so taxes from tobacco money, to be sure, helped pay their salaries and put my sister and me through school.

I raise these points because it’s easy to forget that the tobacco industry brings in a lot of money that can do a lot of good to people who work and live in its economic centers. North Carolina is the United States’ number one tobacco producer. R.J. Reynolds (the second-largest tobacco firm) and Lorrilard (the third-largest) are headquartered in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, North Carolina, respectively. I don’t know where North Carolina would be without tobacco.

But we might soon learn.

More than 25 years ago, the federal government mandated labels on packs of cigarettes warning of the dangers and health risks of smoking. I fully agree that these text labels are helpful in spreading the word that cigarettes can cause cancer, emphysema, and other serious health problems. The public deserves to know the dangers of what it is consuming. Even something as small as my daily multivitamin contains a written warning label about iron poisoning in 6-year-olds.

But in June, the government unveiled nine new images it intends to mandate be put on cigarette packs starting in October 2012. As you might imagine, the images are gruesome and depict some of the potential results of smoking (have a look). This week, five tobacco companies filed a lawsuit against the FDA alleging that the graphic warning labels infringe on their First Amendment rights. I don’t think people should be smoking a pack a day, but I’m inclined to agree with the tobacco companies here.

The government will require cigarette packs to use one of the nine images on a full 50 percent of its label, and it will carry the phone number 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Since when does the government require a legal product to use its own packaging to urge prospective buyers not to purchase it? The text warning labels are one thing, but the images do seem to go above and beyond to actually discourage citizens from buying a product. The government is directly advocating the demise of the product itself.

Which begs the question, if the government is so intent on ridding America of cigarette smokers, why not just ban cigarettes? It certainly has the power to make products illegal, though it didn’t work out so well during Prohibition. And if the federal government wants to jump on its high horse and try to save American lives and reduce American tax dollars being spent on medical problems, why not go after the leading cause of death in this country—heart disease?

If these graphic warning labels of lung cancer and throat disease are fair for cigarettes, why not slap a picture of open heart surgery onto the container for McDonald’s french fries? And no need to stop there. If you want to buy a car without the best safety features, you’ll have to look at images of people thrown against a tree with their head split open. If you want to buy a handgun or bullets, better have a peek at revolting gunshot wounds. Want to take that anti-depression medication with possible side effects of suicide? First you’ll have to look at someone who slit her wrists or jumped out of a 40-story building and went splat on the concrete. What’s the difference?

Ultimately, for me, the issue is that the product is legal, and there is such a thing as overstepping when informing the public about possible or probable side effects. If the government wants to prevent all people from smoking, then make a law. Otherwise, the written warning labels speak for themselves, just as they do on other potentially harmful products in the marketplace.

The government has projected that the graphic warning labels will reduce the number of smokers in this country by more than 200,000 in the first year of implementation. This could save a lot of lives; so could banning flour and sugar. But is that what America is about?

Last I checked, people are informed and then are able to make their own decisions about how to live their lives and which risks to take on. Now, who is paying the health care bills for all of these smokers filing up the hospitals is another blog altogether, but again, it’s no different than those with heart disease and diabetes running up the tab as well. And, to be frank, overpopulation in this world of limited resources is likely a bigger problem than all the rest.

So having said all that, what do you think about the new graphic warning labels? Fair or foul on the government’s part? Would you like to see them implemented on other harmful products? I’m interested to know what other people think because I’m starting to sound like a conservative, and we all know that can’t be right….

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