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Published: Monday, 11/21/2011

COMMENTARY

Graphic photos on cigarette packs aid public health

BY TOM WALTON

The pictures are graphic and gruesome: Rotting human lungs, blackened by years of cigarette use. Discolored teeth stained a ruddy brown. A man blowing smoke out of a tracheotomy hole in his neck. A dead body in a morgue, its chest laced with autopsy staples.

The images are meant to shock, and they do.

But according to a federal judge in the District of Columbia, the pictures may carry a noble idea too far. Judge Richard Leon says cigarette manufacturers will not be required after all to start printing the pictures on packs of cigarettes in 2012.

Judge Leon's opinion stays an order of the federal Food and Drug Administration that would have forced the manufacturers to put the nine images on their products beginning next September. The judge wants a determination of whether the photographs move the federal government beyond providing information for consumers and into the realm of outright advocacy.

I'm struggling to understand the judge's reasoning. Evidently, he wonders whether there is a free-speech issue in forcing the manufacturer of a legal product to graphically discourage its consumption.

To which I say, so what? Cigarettes, when used as directed, kill.

The power of a graphic image is undeniable. If paying $5 a pack and $50 or more a carton doesn't discourage smokers, it's clear the surgeon general's bland health warning printed on every pack of cigarettes isn't working.

The smokers keep buying. And those of us who hate what cigarettes do to those who smoke -- and to everyone around them -- keep pushing.

Many years ago, when he was maybe 4 years old, our son watched his mother light up a cigarette. "Mommy," he asked, "why do you do that?" Out of the mouths of babes, huh? Obviously there was no acceptable answer that would satisfy him. She never smoked again. He never started.

In the years just before my retirement, when The Blade vigorously argued editorially for a ban on smoking in public places, first in Toledo and Lucas County, then across Ohio, I came to know a man named Patrick Reynolds.

If his name sounds familiar, it's because he was part of the R. J. Reynolds empire. His grandfather was R.J. himself. The younger Mr. Reynolds could have lived comfortably, even lavishly, off the profits his family's products generated.

But he watched cigarette-induced emphysema and lung cancer take the lives of his father, R.J. Jr., and his oldest brother, R.J. III. He decided he could no longer benignly accept the national health threat his company was perpetuating, especially among impressionable teenagers and young adults. He set out on his own to carry his message about the menace of smoking to all who would listen.

Mr. Reynolds came to Toledo to talk to young people. He visited schools, he lobbied our editorial board (we were an easy sell), and he appeared on our public-affairs television program The Editors.

I called him recently about Judge Leon's decision. He's not happy.

"These large graphic warnings do three things," he said. "They inform consumers about the risk, they motivate smokers to stop, and they discourage kids and former smokers from starting the habit."

Some 43 countries already require graphic warnings on cigarette packages, he pointed out. "It's time the United States did, too."

Here's a man who turned his back on the family fortune to became RJR's worst nightmare. He's still out there, doing his thing. My guess is that he's no longer welcome at family reunions. I wish his message could reach every high school student in America.

Judge Leon needs to hear it, too. His ruling sets aside the overwhelming will of Congress in giving the FDA the authority in 2009 to regulate the marketing of tobacco products. He ignores scientific proof of the health risk, and he disregards a ruling by a federal judge in Kentucky that the photo labels are objective and consistent with the government's interest in public health.

The decision should trigger an aggressive appeal by the Justice Department, to allow distribution of the new labels on schedule. In the meantime, the cigarette industry will continue to market its deadly product to another generation of young people.

While the legal fight plays out, we need to focus on a greater challenge: to ban smoking everywhere in this country that people gather indoors in public places.

Nothing I was involved with editorially over the years at The Blade gave me greater satisfaction than working with publisher John Robinson Block to advocate adoption of Ohio's statewide ban. Today, 27 states have enacted statewide bans on smoking in enclosed public places. That's 27 down, 23 to go.

Am I a zealot on this? I hope so.

Thomas Walton is a retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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