Frightening Us to Save Us: Why the Government Must Not use Graphic Images on Cigarette Packets

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

Cigarette packets have carried stark health warnings for a few years now. But the Government believes that these warnings are losing their impact and that more dramatic steps need to be in place to help people stop smoking or, ideally, to prevent them from even starting. This week, it has been decided that starting from September 2008, cigarette packets will carry graphic images of the consequences of smoking. These range from rotten teeth to discoloured lungs, unsightly growths under one's neck, a baby in an incubator and so on. The hope is that such images will frighten current and prospective smokers enough to make them want to stay well away from cigarettes.

These pictures are uncomfortable to view for all of us, not just smokers. But apart from the discomfort they cause and the "yuck" factor they have, what can reasonably be gained from them? The pictures are geared towards achieving the same goal as are the verbal warnings we have on packets at the moment yet many smokers could not tell you what is written on the cigarette packets they buy simply because they do not read the warnings. It is possible that these graphic images might be effective in the short term but lose their force after a while, as have their verbal equivalents. The intention behind the warnings, both verbal and visual, is to create the feeling of "This could be me" and hit close to home but if people want to ignore or deny these risks, that is up to them. What impact the images will have only time will tell but what is important to examine at the moment is the role of the Government in preventing smoking.

The government has a duty to warn its people about the dangers of certain lifestyle choices but there is a difference between warning people and frightening them. One may argue that the images will not frighten people but clearly, this is what they are intended at doing. If they were meant to merely warn people, there would be no point in having them at all because the verbal warnings already do that. If they do frighten people as they are meant to, one must ask why the government is not content with letting people know of the risks and then allowing them to make their own informed choices.

Of course it is true that pictures are more effective at conveying messages than are mere words. But techniques of communication are only effective if people want to listen. Most smokers already know what the consequences of their choice are and their decision to smoke exists even with the knowledge of the risks. Ignorance is not a reason for their decision. Altering a communication technique is only worthwhile if one believes that the current technique is not able to reach the potential consumer so using a picture where someone cannot read, for example, is worth doing. If smokers choose to continue to smoke, it is not because the verbal warnings are not reaching them or they are ignorant of the risks; they merely choose to ignore the warnings.

If the Government insists on being heavy-handed about smoking, it ought to do so in circumstances where innocent lives are at risk of damage. This is why the smoking ban that came into force on 1 July 2007 is appropriate. The ban disallows smoking in public places, thereby protecting non-smokers from the effects of cigarette smoke. Similarly, if stronger messages need to go out to pregnant women about the effect that cigarette smoke can have on their unborn children, such messages would also be morally appropriate. But to attempt to scare rather than inform people about smoking is morally wrong because, notwithstanding the ill-effects of smoking, such tactics attempt to violate free choice.

One cannot help but wonder what else the Government would do to help us stay healthy. At the moment, we are given detailed information about the contents of food products and we can decide whether or not to eat them. Once we are informed about how "good" a product is with the traffic light system (a system that rates foods according to the colours of traffic lights, with red being the worst and green the best), it is up to us what to buy. The same holds true for salt levels and the recommended daily amount, for fruit and vegetables and how many portions we should eat, etc. All this information and education is quite justifiable on the part of the Government because it is just that. However, if I choose to leave the supermarket without a single piece of fruit, that is my choice. It is not for the Government to use methods to scare me into realising what might happen to me if I didn't eat enough fruit.

Almost every food item is healthy or unhealthy depending on how much or how little we eat of it. Yet, we do not have graphic warnings on packs of cheese or cartons of cream that warn us about heart disease or obesity if we eat too much of these foods. Neither do we have graphic warnings on products that contain artificial sweeteners that warn us of the dangers of these products. Even so called healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables can end up being unhealthy if we eat too much of them and do not balance our diet with protein and carbohydrate. People who suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia may be eating more fruit and vegetables than protein or carbohydrate else so that they do not put on weight. Losing an excessive amount of weight is also a health concern as indeed is putting on too much weight. The Government does not and ought not to issue graphic health warnings about food products because what we ought to eat is relative to individual need and also because such warnings can make us paranoid.

Just as the Government relies on our intelligence and sense of judgement to determine what goes in our shopping basket, regardless of the health implications of our choice, it ought also to allow smokers and potential smokers to make their own decisions. As long as people are aware of the impact that their lifestyle choices have on their health, regardless of whether these are surrounding what they eat or the decision to smoke, the role of the Government is to inform free choice and not to control it. Controlling free choice no longer makes it free and then one must ask why the Government does not just ban products that it does not want us to consume instead of allowing us the freedom to choose while yet controlling that choice.