Tobacco Companies Sue FDA with a Smile

U.S. tobacco companies are trying to block a law that will require them to slap grotesque warning labels—like the one above—on their packaging beginning in 2012.

Like me, you probably heard that story reported at least a dozen times this week, often with a breathless rejoinder (like this one I heard on American Public Media’s Marketplace):

“Quite frankly, these images are horrifying. And they will scare people away from smoking.”

Sure, that sounds logical. But the facts don’t appear to bear it out:

— Graphic warning labels are already mandated in more than 40 countries across the world—from Panama to Pakistan.

— The rate of cigarette consumption in five of the largest countries in that fraternity (Canada, Australia, Brazil, UK and India) has moderated only slightly. And in three of the countries, it actually went up.1

— And that’s despite the fact that smokers say that the labels have increased their awareness of dangers of smoking, and intensified their resolve to stop.2

How we think—and how we behave—are two entirely different things, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely reminds us. That’s especially true when it comes to addictive substances and engrained behaviors.

Awareness (even when accompanied by revulsion) does not equate to action. Otherwise we’d all be slim, fit and healthy.

A dark hypothesis to ponder: What if the tobacco companies are rabbits in the briar patch on this issue? And the lawsuit is merely a smokescreen obscuring the fact that the labels aren’t hurting their sales as much as you might presume?

For tobacco companies, it’s far healthier to engage in a public debate about the legality of labels than the legality of cigarettes.

1 “Warning Labels Decoded,” UBS Investment Research, August 11, 2011. (PDF)

2 See research studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project.