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Congress has just given the Food & Drug Administration oversight over the Tobacco Industry, but though one big cigarette maker, Altria, supported the move generally, new rules on warning labels on packs aren’t sitting so well.
The bill, which is expected to be signed into law quickly by President Obama, will put a new clamp on many elements of the business, from regulating health claims to empowering the FDA to require changes in ingredients if they deem them necessary.
But one of the more contentious parts of the new law may be its provision for starker warning labels. Labeling on packs was left up to the FDA to decide in earlier versions of the bill, but in the final version changes were mandated. David Sylvia, a spokesman for Altria’s Philip Morris USA business argues labeling would be better handled by a regulator than through legislation. A regulator could study the issue scientifically and render a decision on that basis, says Sylvia. As things stand “we don’t know if it’s more effective communication or not,” he says.
Cigarette makers concern over packaging makes sense. As restrictions on conventional tobacco marketing have increased, the packs have become more and more valuable unfettered advertising space. Tobacco companies increasingly rely on packaging as one of their last best methods of image building. Packs are both a way to create a presence in stores and to communicate what the brand is about.
According to a study of tobacco company documents made public through litigation, the industry’s own market testing results “indicate that such imagery is so strong as to influence smoker’s taste ratings of the same cigarettes when packaged differently.” The study found tobacco companies carried out systematic and extensive research to ensure that cigarette packaging appeals to selected target groups, including young adults and women.
The bill that passed today directly requires bold health warnings on both sides of a pack of cigarettes, a move countries like Brazil, Australia, Thailand and Singapore pioneered. In those countries stomach-turning photos of premature babies, oral cancers, tracheotomies and children on ventilators due to second hand smoke, cover the side of a pack of smokes.
Initially text-only, the US version would cover the top half of the packs, front and back. But within two years, the FDA would have to come up with similar “regulations that require color graphic labels depicting the negative health consequences of smoking.”
In England there has been discussion in government of something more radical, and even more distressing to the industry: moving to all-white packages. The hope: to remove the mystique brands like Marlboro have built in part through their distinctive look. The industry including Philip Morris International, Marlboro’s maker outside the US, is working hard to fight that prospect.
Though Philip Morris says the warnings are not scientifically proven effective, in May the World Health Organization urged all governments to use pictorial warnings “showing the sickness and suffering caused by tobacco use.” The WHO cited studies of the effect of such warnings in Brazil, Canada, Singapore and Thailand that found these images motivate users to quit, and prevent others from taking up the habit.
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