FDA wants to put graphic warnings on cigarette packs

  • The Food and Drug Administration is proposing that cigarette labels include graphic images to warn smokers of the health risks, including illustrations of amputated toes and diseased lungs. 
  • The plan would mark the first change to cigarette warnings in 35 years, or since the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning was mandated in 1984. 
  • More than 35 million Americans smoke cigarettes, which is linked to 480,000 death a year.

Smokers would have a hard time overlooking the graphic images displayed on cigarette packages if federal health officials have their way. Illustrations of cancerous neck tumors, feet with amputated toes and diseased lungs are among the 13 new warnings that would be on cigarettes under a proposal on Thursday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Color illustrations taking up half of the front of cigarette packs would warn consumers that, along with cancer, smoking causes heart disease, diabetes and impotence, the FDA stated. The labels would also appear on tobacco ads.

If adopted, the new labels would represent the first change to cigarette warnings in 35 years, or since the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning for smoking was mandated in 1984. 

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The current warnings on the side of cigarette packaging are overlooked by smokers and may as well be “invisible,” the FDA said.

Proposed warning labels U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The FDA is trying to reach the 34 million adults and 1.4 million youths who smoke in the U.S., with the habit linked to 480,000 deaths every year.

The agency’s past efforts to amplify the risks of smoking was successfully challenged by tobacco companies on free speech grounds, with cigarette makers arguing they shouldn’t be forced to display grisly depictions of what might happen to smokers.

The FDA’s tobacco director, Mitch Zeller, said the new push is bolstered by research on what the more graphic warning labels would do to educate Americans about the lesser-known dangers of smoking, such as bladder cancer.

“While the public generally understands that cigarette smoking is dangerous, there are significant gaps in their understanding of all of the diseases and conditions associated with smoking,” he said. 

If the agency is sued, “we strongly believe this will hold up under any legal challenges,” Zeller added.

Tobacco company Reynolds American said it backs educational efforts, but the “manner in which these messages are delivered to the public cannot run afoul of the First Amendment.” 

The company, which makes Camel and Newport cigarettes, is one of five tobacco manufacturers that successfully challenged the FDA’s warning labels in 2012. The nation’s largest tobacco company, Altria, said it will “carefully review the proposed rule.” 

In 2000, Canada became the first country to put graphic warnings on cigarettes. Since then, nearly 120 nations around the globe have mandated the bigger, graphic warnings.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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