Opinions on labels vary among local smokers, doctors

When you pick up your favorite cigarette pack next year, you could find a photo of a diseased lung staring you down and challenging your decision to smoke.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration announced it will begin requiring tobacco companies to cover the top half of cigarette boxes and 20 percent of tobacco advertisements with graphic anti-smoking images starting late next year.

Local residents said they doubt the warnings and their grisly pictures, which include trachea holes and rotting teeth and gums, will persuade them to stop smoking.

But local doctors say they hope the visual impact of seeing the health effects of smoking day after day will be enough to convince some residents.

“People who smoke already know the risks,” said Brett Badgerow, a Houma resident. “We see it on television. We saw it in school. We see it everywhere. Seeing it on a cigarette pack is just another friendly reminder. If it hasn’t worked anywhere else, why would it work for stubborn Americans?”

About one in four adults in Terrebonne and Lafourche smokes cigarettes, according to County Health Rankings 2011, a report that ranks the overall health of every county in the U.S. The report, released in March, is compiled by the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in New Jersey. In Louisiana, 23 percent of adults smoke, compared to 15 percent nationwide.

About one in five Louisiana high school students smoke, a state Health Department survey found in 2008.

Dr. Greg Chaisson, an internal medicine doctor at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center, said many patients know some of the risks of smoking but are in denial about how it will affect their personal health. He said he thinks many people also don’t understand the varied and numerous health problems smoking causes.

“They do know it’s bad, but they think it will probably happen to someone else and not to them,” Chaisson said. “A picture is very vivid — it sticks with you.”

He said he hopes it will persuade some not to smoke, especially young people.

“I’d support anything that would dissuade patients from starting or continuing to smoke, but my guess is that it wouldn’t be very effective,” said Dr. Harry McGaw, a medical oncologist at Terrebonne General Medical Center.


Dr. Laura Campbell, chairwoman of the cancer committee at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center, said she doesn’t think the current text-only warnings for cigarettes are effective enough. She asks each of her smoking patients what they think the number one cause of death is for smokers. Most guess cancer.

“They haven’t got a clue, and it’s on every pack they light up,” she said. “People exercise some serious denial when it comes to cigarette smoking.”

The top cause of death for smokers is cardiovascular disease and strokes, Campbell said. That’s because smoking increases blood pressure, decreases exercise tolerance and increases the tendency for blood to clot.

“They say, ‘I won’t get cancer, because all people don’t get cancer,’ ” Campbell said. “But you will get vascular disease.”

Chaisson said many people think that because they’re healthy now, they can just keep smoking and quit later.

“Then 10 years pass by, and 20 years pass by, and a serious illness hits them,” Chaisson said.

McGaw said if you can name a type of organ cancer, it’s probably been linked to smoking.

“Cancer of the mouth and throat — which I think is one of the worst, because of the misery it causes patients,” he said. “Cancers of the esophagus, colon and kidney.”

Smoking can also cause a number of serious lung illnesses, including emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, all of which will make it difficult for you to breathe.

“There is nothing good about smoking tobacco,” Campbell said. “If these warnings work, I will happily lose a big part of my business.”

If the health warnings do have you thinking twice, Campbell had a few suggestions for your campaign to quit. She advises her patients to think about behavioral modifications, changing and avoiding places and actions they associate with smoking.

“It might be as simple as sitting on the opposite side of the table when you have your morning coffee,” Campbell said.

Put a calendar in a place you see every day and mark the day you plant to quit smoking about three weeks ahead of time with a bold marking.

Nicotine withdrawal, which can cause anxiety, irritability, headaches and other physical and mental symptoms, lasts about a week and can be curbed with nicotine supplements or antidepression medications, she said.


Most of all, she tells patients that they have to quit for the right reasons.

“No one can make you quit,” Campbell said. “You have to decide for yourself to quit.”

Most locals interviewed randomly said they don’t think the advertisements will cause smokers to quit.

Wendy Picou, a Houma smoker, said the graphic pictures won’t affect her habit.

“Whenever — if ever — I do quit, it won’t be because of those pictures,” she said. “It’s just a waste of money.”

But Sara Peltier of Houma said if the warnings help one person quit smoking, they’ve done their job. And she’d take the warnings a step further.

Yes, we would all love to see everyone quit, but cigarettes are an addiction,” she said. “I also think they should put gruesome drinking-and-driving accidents on bottles of alcohol.”

By Nikki Buskey
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