Aiming Wide in City War on Smoking

Before too long, you may be forced to stare at a photo of blackened lungs, oozing decay, every time you go to the bodega for a quart of milk. We’re trying to figure out where under the heading of quality of life to file this bit of news.

The photo is the latest idea from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, part of its nonstop campaign to acquaint the citizenry with the wickedness of smoking. Show smokers right there at the checkout counter how much gunk coats their lungs and maybe they will reconsider plunking down that Hamilton for a pack of cigarettes. That’s the theory.

You might have thought that by now, even the most benighted smoker must know that the habit is destructive, no matter how satisfying in the short term. We’ve only had decades of government warnings on cigarette packs, not to mention recent television commercials showing two New Yorkers whose addiction led to the removal of a larynx and the amputation of fingers.

Well before the government first ordered those warnings, in 1964, cigarettes were routinely referred to as cancer sticks and coffin nails. Those were not intended as phrases of affection. Most people understood that, even those of us who smoked back then in a misguided belief that an unfiltered Gitane dangling from the lips in imitation of Jean-Paul Belmondo in “Breathless” was a way to counteract hard-wired nerdiness.

But the health department, led by its new commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, believes that more in-your-face tactics are required. Dr. Farley wants to require shops that sell cigarettes to post health warning signs prominently. After all, he said, the tobacco industry spends millions for advertisements at the “point of sale,” something perhaps better known to you as a cash register.

“They clearly work, or the industry wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It’s an addictive drug that’s killing hundreds of thousands of Americans. It seems to me that just providing a warning sign there is actually a reasonable and modest approach to try to counteract that.”

He added, “What we know is that counteradvertising in general works.”

The thing is, though, that despite his department’s estimate that a million New Yorkers continue to smoke, most of us don’t. Yet under the proposed new regulations, anyone who goes to the corner store will have to look at blackened lungs and possibly more. An assistant health commissioner, Sarah B. Perl, was quoted in The Daily News as saying that people are going to see what cancer of the mouth and the throat look like.

Really now, is it necessary to be subjected to such photos when all you want is a carton of orange juice?

It’s for the collective good, Dr. Farley replied. “The issue is that when people go to the store, they get advertisements encouraging them to smoke, encouraging them to pick up what is an addictive drug and is killing people,” he said. “So we need to balance that with some information that protects people.”

The Board of Health must approve any change. It plans a public hearing on July 30. Count on testimony being emotional — and predictable.

Antitobacco forces will insist, not without notes of piety, that the city must do whatever it takes to wipe out smoking. Libertarians will demand with equal fervor that the calorie-posting, trans-fat-banning mayor and his crew stop meddling in people’s lives. The tobacco industry will protest. Store owners will weep that City Hall is taking bread out of their children’s mouths.

You may count as well on the board’s endorsing the proposal. Its chairman happens to be Dr. Farley. Approval, he said, “is likely.”

IN that case, how about taking this approach even further? Why stop with cigarettes?

Why not require pictures of morbidly obese people at candy counters, to show what too many Snickers bars can do? Or photos of clogged arteries at fast-food restaurants, to discourage orders of double cheeseburgers? To promote safe sex, graphic examples of Kaposi’s sarcoma could be placed by condom racks. Displays of horribly diseased livers in liquor stores ought to deter people from drinking to excess.

“I’m not prepared to think about things like that now,” Dr. Farley said. First things first. “Tobacco,” he said, “is far and away the No. 1 underlying killer in America.”

Then we’d best conquer it ASAP. Maybe it’s just us, but we can’t wait to move on to those fatty livers and blocked arteries.
© Copyright: Nytimes

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