by Bill J. Pfeifer – Jul. 4, 2011 12:00 AM
The new warning labels on cigarette packs are getting attention because they’re so graphic: images of corpses, cancer-riddled lungs and a smoker exhaling through a tracheotomy hole in his neck.
But the discussion about cigarette packaging shouldn’t be reduced to an argument about aesthetics. And it shouldn’t be dismissed for not being a silver bullet. This is just one part of addressing nicotine addiction in our communities. And it’s an effective one.
When it comes to graphic imagery, research shows that combining compelling images with important facts works. Organizations like the World Health Organization conclude that the use of pictures with graphic depictions of disease and other negative images has a greater impact than words alone.
Examples of this approach to deter teen smoking in Arizona can be found in early campaigns like “Smelly, Puking Habit,” which helped reduce smoking rates among youths ages 12-17 by 26 percent. The current multimedia campaign, “Venomocity.com: Brought to you by addiction,” is already showing a 40 percent reduction. It’s blazing a new trail in our state, educating teens about the dangers of nicotine addiction using digital and social media.
These types of anti-smoking public-service campaigns are a first defense against teens lighting up at all: Remember, 90 percent of adult smokers started smoking before the age of 17.
The average smoker will make as many as 11 attempts to quit, and the new labels will spur them to make the effort. For their family and friends, the labels can serve as a conversation starter to encourage a quit attempt. That’s especially important in Arizona, where the smoking rates are below the national average and the remaining adult smokers are tough to reach.
Nicotine, though, is not just a “bad habit,” it is an addiction. So smokers will need help, including access to counseling and medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Certainly, the health benefits of quitting are well-documented, but the savings associated are also strong. In a report by the American Lung Association last spring, the savings were great when it came to investment in cessation programs, in some cases double: $1 invested equaling $2 saved. In fact, this year Arizona upgraded its employee cessation program by removing the lifetime coverage-maximum benefit of $500.
Now we have a real window of opportunity. There is a projected jump in people who will try to stop smoking as a result of the new labels. The time is right for the private sector to follow the state’s lead, providing adequate cessation programs and coverage to help their employees to quit.
Humana became a pacesetter with its decision not to hire smokers. The company is also expanding the incentives and programs to encourage current nicotine-hooked employees to quit.
The Arizona Republic concluded in a June 24 editorial, “Shocking ads unlikely to deter smokers,” that the new labels wouldn’t sway smokers or stop youths from smoking. We disagree. The warning labels are a new tool that we hope will cause people to look, to talk and to take action against the leading cause of preventable death and disease in our state and country.
Bill J. Pfeifer is president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Southwest.