Smoking is a leading cause of premature and preventable death, chronic health problems and disease in the United States and the rest of the world. Thousands of chemicals and several dozen carcinogens are contained in tobacco products that can be extremely harmful to a person’s health, which can have negative effects on almost every organ in the body. Smoking is not only a major factor in almost one-fifth of all deaths, it also contributes to 480,000 premature deaths per year in the United States, and contributes to a lower quality of life due to the chronic health problems that result from smoking, including heart and respiratory disease, stroke and cancer.
Graphic warning labels
Graphic health warnings have been placed on tobacco packaging to increase public awareness of the harms of tobacco products as well as to help reduce the use of tobacco products and help people to quit smoking. At least 85 countries and jurisdictions — including Canada, Brazil and Singapore — now have graphic health warning labels printed on the packages of tobacco products such as cigarettes. Studies show that graphic warning labels not only increase public awareness about the harms of smoking, these labels also help people quit smoking. For example, An-Li Wang, Ph.D., a researcher at Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia, and her colleagues investigated graphic warning labels that produced high emotional reactions among current smokers and, thereby, reduced their urges to smoke.
Tobacco plain packaging in Australia and Europe
Despite the harms associated with the use of tobacco products, smoking continues to be one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. In 2014, about 5.9 trillion cigarettes were smoked worldwide, with the highest prevalence and the most cigarettes smoked by average smokers each day in China and European countries, according to the Tobacco Atlas.
The Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 proposed plain packaging and enlarged graphic warning labels on all tobacco products sold in Australia to help people to stop smoking, reduce relapse and discourage the use of tobacco products. In December 2012, when the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011 took full effect, all tobacco products sold in Australia were required to be covered in plain packaging, with enlarged health warnings covering the front of most tobacco packaging to reduce the appeal of tobacco products to consumers.
Fifteen studies by Australian researchers were published in the BMJ’s journal Tobacco Control in April 2015 that reported the effects of implementing standardized packaging in their country. One study by Melanie A. Wakefield and her colleagues from the Centre for Behavioral Research in Cancer found that after following the implementation of plain packaging with larger graphic health warnings, more smokers reported lower satisfaction from smoking cigarettes, while large graphic warning labels were attributed to higher motivation to quit.
Caroline L. Miller, with the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), and her colleagues reported the results of an online survey that included 268 participants. Since the implementation of plain packaging in Australia, the results indicated that:
In summary, the studies indicated that the plain packaging with larger graphic warnings was associated with less appeal, quality, value, enjoyment and value among smokers. Following Australia’s implementation of this legislation, standardized packaging has been proposed in several European countries, including the United Kingdom, Ireland and France. In May 2016, the United Kingdom became the first country in the European Union to remove brightly colored, branded packaging and require all cigarette packs to be a single color with large health warnings on tobacco packs.
Need for plain packaging and graphic warning labels in the United States
Due to the negative consequences of smoking on health, numerous anti-tobacco and tobacco regulation laws and legislation have been passed by lawmakers — including the Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement (STAKE) Act, which prohibited the use and sale of tobacco products to minors in September 1994 — to place greater restrictions on the use and sale of tobacco products — such as cigarettes, cigars, hookah, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. In the United States, concerted efforts of lawmakers have aimed at reducing smoking and its negative consequences on youth and adults, including restrictions on smoking advertisements, the removal of added flavoring to cigarettes, anti-smoking campaigns, educational programs and increased tobacco taxes.
In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was passed by Congress, which required text-only labels to be replaced with graphic health warnings that depicted the negative health consequences of smoking. Although the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) proposed nine health warning statements with graphic labels to appear on cigarette packages, the graphic health warning labels that were proposed by the FDA were successfully challenged by tobacco companies and the United States has yet to implement the required graphic warning labels on tobacco products.
The results of implementing plain packaging with large graphic health warning labels in Australia indicates that this is an effective way to prevent smoking and save people’s lives from the negative consequences of tobacco products such as cigarettes. As more European countries introduce similar plain packaging legislation, it may be time that the United States follows suit.
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About the author
Amanda Habermann is a writer for Sovereign Health. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.