WARNING: Scaring the life out of smokers

Last winter, the federal government put into legislation the world’s toughest and most graphic cigarette warning labels

Photo courtesy of www.infotobacco.com
Photo courtesy of www.infotobacco.com
In graphic form, Health Canada warns about the effects of smoking. Pictured above are 3 of 16 new warning labels.
In graphic form, Health Canada warns about the effects of smoking. Pictured above are 3 of 16 new warning labels.
Photo courtesy of www.infotobacco.com

If you’ve been to a convenience store recently, you’ve likely looked across the counter to the cigarette packs and had your gaze met by a set of fetid, dirt-stained choppers grinning back at you.

It’s clear that Health Canada isn’t pulling any punches with smokers.

Nor are they afraid to hit young male smokers where they live—in their pants. Another label warns that smoking causes impotence and shows a meek cigarette, clearly lacking ‘rigidity’.

The smoking labels, just two in a series of 16 intended to shine a spotlight on the darker side of smoking, were brought into law in June of 2000. The Product Information (labeling) Regulations Act makes Canada’s cigarette labeling legislation the toughest in the world.

By January of 2001, any tobacco manufacturer with more than two per cent of the market was required to print the labels on its products. The labels had to cover 50 per cent of the display surface. Tobacco companies with two per cent or less were granted a stay of six months to meet the standards.

Given much media attention since their introduction, the visceral images that adorn cigarette packs have made a mixed impression on smokers, according to local storeowners.

“The girls laugh at the limp dick one because it’s not their problem,” remarked Dmitri Nikotopolous of College Variety, at the corner of Earl and Alfred.

“But the pack that really grosses people out is the one with the teeth. I’ve had people ask for new packs when I pull that label off the shelf,” he added.

“The heart and the lungs, those just don’t seem to bother people. As long as the outside looks fine, who cares about the inside. I suppose it’s an indication of how shallow we all are,” said Nikotopolous. Queen’s has a lot of casual smokers, and these labels don’t seem to make an impact with them, he said.

For Health Minister Allan Rock, the battle against tobacco use is clearly worth fighting. During an April parliamentary address, Rock proclaimed, “the time has come to establish specific, concrete and meaningful goals in our battle against smoking.” Fueling this battle, Rock announced an allocation of $480 million over the next five years to fight smoking. The ultimate goal is the fulfillment of a three-pronged objective. Rock wants a 20 per cent reduction in the number of people who smoke, a 30 per cent reduction in the number of cigarettes sold, and an 80 per cent increase in the number of retail facilities who comply with the Tobacco Act.

Rock admits these goals are ambitious, but argues that accomplishing even a small part will decrease the use of a product that, according to Garfield Mahood, “causes 30 per cent of all cancer deaths, 30 per cent of all cardiovascular deaths, 90 per cent of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” Mahood is the head of the Ottawa-based Non Smokers Rights Association and designer of many of the labels.

A recent survey conducted by the Hamilton Spectator suggests the anti-smoking labels have failed to reduce youth smoking—levels have not declined appreciably since 1994. The Spectator reports the labels are actually having the opposite effect, becoming like trading cards. The ultimate ‘error’ cards, perhaps.

This is good news for the tobacco industry, where, according to the National Clearinghouse on Tobacco and Health, a single percentage point in market share equals $23 billion in revenue.

While the long-term impact of the new cigarette warning labels remains unclear, some smoker-friendly groups have retaliated, suggesting that the labels are hitting home more than some smokers are willing to admit.

A number of commercial off-shoots have emerged on the market, allowing smokers to cover-up what Health Canada asserts is a glimpse of their own future. The replacement cigarette covers are available at convenience stores, and at web sites like cigarettecover.com. The sites visitors can vote for alternate labels carrying messages such as “Smoking Preserves Meat,” “Bla Bla Bla…Bla Bla!!!” and “C’est cool,” which is accompanied by the yellow smiley face.

Others have gone nostalgic said Montreal tobacco store manager Denyse Richard in an interview with The Globe and Mail. Richard said she’s seen a demand for “old-style cigarette cases associated with the days when smoking was glamorous,” costing up to $129.

Misconceptions about the prevalence and acceptability of smoking are exactly what Health Canada is trying to combat.

The theory behind the Health Canada warning labels is known in social marketing circles as denormalization. According to the National Clearinghouse on Tobacco and Health, denormalization is a response to the decades-long period during which the tobacco industry freely conducted business as a normal, legitimate member of the business community, marketing both addiction and legitimacy in the process.

The goal of denormalization, argues the Clearinghouse web site, is to get the message across that the tobacco industry and its products “fall outside the norms of civilized behaviour and legitimate business activity,” disabling and killing consumers though used exactly as intended. Some smokers are scared.

“I’ve had a number of people say to me, without sarcasm, that this would be their last pack,” said Nikotopolous. He feels that among his regular customers, the packs seem to have made a greater impression on upper-year and graduate students.

For one Queen’s student, however, the labels are ineffective.

“I think they’re ridiculous,” says Daniela Piteo, Arts ’00.

“It’s not going to stop anyone from smoking.” Working at smoker-friendly Stooley’s at the corner of Johnson and Division, Daniela’s complaints center around the obviousness of the warnings.

“We already know,” she says. “Seeing a picture isn’t going to change anything.”

Daniela, who smokes a pack a day, tosses this comment when shown a pack emblazoned with a picture of a single, lit cigarette resting atop a land-fill of butts in an ashtray.

“To me,” she said, “that’s almost appealing.”

“It reminds me of Res.”

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