FDA Unveils New Cigarette Warning Labels
By Taylor Marvin
Over at Megan McArdle’s blog, Courtney Knapp has an interesting post about the FDA’s gruesome new health warning for cigarette packs:
I largely agree with Knapp that these new warning labels are unlikely to significantly reduce the number of smokers. The adverse health impacts of smoking are widely known, and it’s unlikely that these warning labels will significantly reduce the perceived “glamor” of smoking. Speaking as a 22 year old American, I’d say that smoking generally is not seen as attractive by my age group, though of course this varies by subculture. In my experience, young Americans begin smoking for the stress-reduction of nicotine and because their friends do, not because it’s presented as attractive in the media. Unlike media presentations of smoking, these influencing factors are not likely to be responsive to FDA anti-tobacco efforts.
Similarly, positive portrayals of smoking are fairly rare in modern mainstream American media. When smoking is referenced as glamourous it’s most commonly in a joking manner, as in the trailer for the upcoming Will Ferrell film Casa de mi Padre (trailer slightly NSFW):
While this trailer superficially depicts smoking as glamorous, it’s in a completely joking way. Serious depictions of smoking as glamorous or cool are so rare that media representation is likely not an important modern determinant of youth smoking rates.
However, just because these new labels are likely to be ineffective doesn’t mean that they’re worthless. Warning labels are inexpensive, and likely do reduce smoking level by some amount. Similarly, they’re likely one of the last public policy tools left to deter smoking. The health risks of smoking are likely as widely known as is possible, and as Knapp notes the fact that smoking rates have been flat for the last decade is good evidence that the remaining demand for cigarettes is inelastic enough that higher cigarette taxes are unlikely to lead to significant falls in the number of American smokers. The diminishing returns of anti-tabacco public health efforts is clearly illustrated in this interesting chart from Cancer Research UK:
While depicted data is from the UK, the situation is similar in the US – most of the people who smoke today are unlikely to be influenced by public health policymakers to quit. This suggests that any future increases in cigarette taxes would be a net social loss and should be avoided: they would be unlikely to significantly reduce smoking rates, and because cigarette taxes are highly regressive would penalize the poor without any clear social gains. This doesn’t mean FDA warning labels types of public health social engineering efforts are worthless, but we should have realistic expectation about their effectiveness.