Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Senator Lautenberg's Self-Congratulatory Pat on the Back About Cigarette Warning Labels Shows Lack of Understanding of the Nature of Smoking Addiction

In a press release issued last week, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) congratulated himself for the introduction of nine rotating graphic warning labels on cigarette packs, to be unveiled in March 2012, which resulted from the legislation he supported in 2009.

Senator Lautenberg boasted as follows: "For decades, Big Tobacco got away with slick marketing campaigns that fooled the public into thinking smoking was glamorous – and now we’re turning the tables on them. Each time a smoker reaches for a pack of cigarettes, the deadly truth will be staring them in the face. I applaud the FDA for breathing new life into our country’s efforts to alert the public to the lethal consequences of tobacco addiction. I've been working for over a decade to make these warning labels a reality, and I believe the FDA has taken a crucial step to make people – especially teenagers – think twice before lighting up."

The Rest of the Story

The key lack of insight in Senator Lautenberg's statement is highlighted in bold above: these graphic warning labels will confront smokers each time he or she reaches for a pack of cigarettes. In other words, it is too late. The smoker is already addicted to smoking. He or she has already made the decision to smoke. He or she has already purchased the cigarettes. He or she already has a craving to smoke, and is likely acting due to his or her cigarette addiction. Yet Lautenberg (and a number of anti-smoking groups) appear to believe that a large number of smokers are going to overcome their addiction to smoking simply by being reminded that cigarette smoking is harmful to their health.

This mentality has pervaded the tobacco control movement for too long. It just doesn't work. In 2011, people are not smoking because of lack of awareness that cigarettes are dangerous and could kill them. They are smoking despite that knowledge and awareness. That's the power of the addiction.

Unless and until Congress and anti-smoking groups discard the old dogma of the Health Belief Model (i.e., smokers will quit if only they are informed about the devastating health effects) and adopt a new model that is based on the recognition that smoking is a powerful addiction that does not respond to rational messages and rational decision-making, we will continue to make no more than marginal progress in the effort to promote smoking cessation and substantially reduce smoking rates and their associated morbidity and mortality.

I see a lot of self-congratulations going on among tobacco control groups and policy makers, but I see very little legislation or policy with teeth that will actually make a serious difference in smoking rates and therefore smoking-related morbidity and mortality. In fact, the present emphasis on ingredient disclosure and regulation, warning labels, youth access restrictions, and obstruction of safer competitive products are all working effectively to obscure the real solutions. This is exactly the way Philip Morris planned it. I stand in awe of their work, as the health groups and politicians fell for the trap hook, line, and sinker.

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