Santa Monicans react to new graphic cigarette warning labels

MID-CITY — Purchase a pack of cigarettes and get a blackened lung, rotten teeth or an oxygen mask — these are just a few of nine health warninggraphic warning labels the FDA unveiled recently in what was the most significant change to cigarette labels in the last 25 years.

While the bold new warning labels, which will cover 50 percent of cigarette packaging, won’t appear in packs of smokes until 2012, residents are already reacting to them, and those reactions are mixed.

Michael G. saw a sampling of the labels last week shortly after purchasing a Big Gulp at a 7-Eleven on Santa Monica Boulevard.

“I think they’re ridiculous,” he said. “They’re no deterrent. Anyone who smokes already knows what it does to them. I’m hooked, I’m done and I’ve been smoking for a third of my life, so this isn’t going to do anything to me. I already know this.”

While the FDA is implementing these new warnings to help prevent children from smoking and help adults quit, he doesn’t have full hope about its purpose for children.

“It may be a deterrent for children, but unfortunately just like any other kid who started smoking, it’s through peer pressure,” said the 44-year-old carpenter, who was peer pressured into taking his father’s pack of Pall Malls when he was young.

For 29-year-old computer programmer Carlos Montes, the warning labels do exactly what the FDA is aiming for.

“If I were to buy cigarettes, I wouldn’t want to see that and would not buy them. I would not want that to happen to me,” said Montes, reacting to an image of rotten teeth.

Walking on Ocean Park Boulevard with his sandwich and headed back to work, Montes started to lose his appetite on the second disturbing photo he saw.

“I just don’t want to see it. I don’t like them at all. I guess I’m supposed to link that smoking is a cause of their death? I think this is a post-autopsy? Scary,” he said about a warning label depicting a man on his death bed with a stapled chest.

Elizabeth Taubman is less hesitant and quick in her response to the FDA’s image of the man.

“Perfect. That would scare the … out of anyone,” said the 58-year-old musician.

Scaring people straight is the purpose, said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“These labels are frank, powerful depictions of the health risks of smoking,” she said.

If the labels are real images of the risks of smoking, then the FDA’s mission with these labels fulfills its purpose for Taubman.

“It’s disturbing, extremely disturbing because if that’s what cigarettes do to you, then I would never be interested,” said Taubman.

Store manager Ryan Marker, 32, also believes they are terrifying, but isn’t sure about how effective they may be.

“I think scare tactics are always a problem,” he said. “These facts have always been around for a while, pictures are always effective … granted, but fear tactics, well, they don’t work with me. Personally, I’m horrified by them but I don’t smoke and I don’t know how others will turn around on that.”

Marker is uncertain about the future for this bold measure in the U.S., but other countries like Canada that require these similar labels on cigarette cartons know the positive impact it’s had. Canada required tobacco manufacturers to include graphic warning labels in 2000.

According to a Canadian Community Health Survey from 2009, smoking rates in Canada declined; the smoking rate for men was 23 percent compared with 28 percent in 2001. Among women, the rate was 18 percent, down from 24 percent in 2001.

A Santa Monica worker and Venice resident who used to live in Canada a few years ago attributes the Canadian decline in cigarette smoking to the labels.

Bob, a 35-year-old film editor who didn’t want to give his last name, said he was a smoker before living in Canada and quit during his time there. He credits the labels.

“I think they’re effective,” he said. “I used to smoke when I lived in Canada a few years ago and seeing that versus the warning labels we have, makes a difference.”

In recent years, more than 30 countries or jurisdictions have introduced labels similar to those created by the FDA. The World Health Organization said in a survey done in countries with graphic labels that a majority of smokers noticed the warnings and more than 25 percent said the warnings led them to consider quitting.

The FDA estimates the labels will cut the number of smokers by 213,000 in 2013, with smaller additional reductions through 2031.

By Jessica Jung
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