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Warning label is no magic bullet

The Liggett Group's decision to warn all its cigarette buyers that smoking is addictive breaks new ground in the long-running tobacco wars but is unlikely to affect many smokers' decisions to light up, experts on both sides of the issue say.

The federal government has required cigarette warnings for more than 30 years. But while the cautions have become progressively more dire, the consumption of tobacco has declined slowly and has recently shown a striking increase among young people.

There is no consensus about the effectiveness of warnings on products. But even those who support strong anti-smoking messages on cigarette packs doubt that they help anyone quit smoking or deter many from starting.

What does work, some experts contend, are mass media anti-smoking campaigns directed toward young people and substantial increases in the price of a pack of cigarettes.

Liggett agreed to add the addiction notice to the warnings already in place as part of a groundbreaking settlement, announced Thursday, with 22 states and class-action plaintiffs.

"It's not easy to craft a useful warning," said Dr. David A. Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and a longtime foe of the tobacco industry. "Just putting a warning like it in the type size it's in now is not going to be, in the long run, of much use. Sure it will be novel for a while, but over time, people will gloss over it, as they do the current warnings."

Still, Kessler argued that package warnings and other anti-smoking messages had contributed to a nationwide decline in the number of smokers.

"There has been a social transformation, certainly in adults, over the past 30 years," he said. "Unfortunately, the same changes have not taken place with regard to children and adolescents. They're the ones who are becoming addicted."

A tobacco industry spokeswoman, Peggy Carter of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., said the new warning contained no new information. Everyone knows that quitting smoking is hard, she said.

"Will putting a label on it change some person's decision or choice?" she asked. "I don't know. But does it impart any new information? No. Whether they call it a habit or an addiction, the bottom line is they know that smoking is difficult to stop."

Kessler and other anti-smoking crusaders say warnings alone are unlikely to affect behavior, particularly among young people, where virtually all new smokers are found.

The concept of addiction is difficult to convey to a 14-year-old, said Matthew L. Myers, executive vice president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

"The only way to attack smoking is to attack attitudes and perceptions about the product," he said. "Kids smoke because of who it makes them appear to be and because they believe that they can avoid any of the long-term harms. Kids understand that cigarette smoking is harmful, but they don't believe the harms apply to them."

Beyond the question of how effective warnings are, the impact of Liggett's decision on smokers' behavior will be limited. The company commands 2 percent of the domestic cigarette market, and its brands are not very popular with youths.

The first cigarette package warnings appeared in 1966, following the publication of a landmark study by the U.S. surgeon general.

The first warning said, "Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health." Cigarette consumption rose 1.5 percent in 1965 and 0.7 percent in 1966 but fell in each of the next four years as anti-smoking public service advertisements began running on commercial television stations under a decree from the FCC.

The FCC ruled in 1967 that broadcasters had to provide free time for anti-tobacco messages to balance cigarette company advertising. Congress banned cigarette advertising on radio and television in 1971; when those advertisements went off the air, so did the anti-smoking spots.

Jodie Bernstein, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said product warnings were effective only as part of a broader education campaign. "I've always been a great believer in counter-advertising," Bernstein said. "The only time we saw a significant decline in smoking was during the brief time that there was that counter-advertising on TV. Those ads were enormously effective."

Congress strengthened the warning in 1970, but cigarette use kept rising, peaking in 1981.

The current series of four rotating warnings was imposed in 1984. Those warnings are strongly worded cautions about cancer, heart disease, complications in pregnancy and danger to fetuses.

Since then, cigarette consumption has been on a slow but steady decline. The percentage of the adult population that smokes has shrunk to 25 percent from more than 42 percent in 1965.