Canada orders graphic warnings on cigarettes

Labels bear photos and strong language

January 02, 2001|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

With the first stroke of the New Year, Canada ushered in the biggest, boldest and most shocking cigarette warning labels in the world.

The labels, carrying not only words but also alarming color photos, are designed to make smokers consider - and perhaps even feel - the ills that could lie ahead if they don't hurry up and quit.

Depending on which of 16 rotating labels they encounter, smokers fumbling for their next cigarette will have to get past a color photograph of a person's blackened, bleeding gums and the words, "Warning: Cigarettes Cause Mouth Disease."

Or, they might see a photo of two sad-eyed boys and their plea: "Don't poison us." The text warns that second-hand smoke contains carbon and other chemicals harmful to children.

Under a law passed by Parliament in June, tobacco companies must include the new messages on all cigarette packs shipped to Canadian stores. It could take a few months, however, before the new packs replace all the old ones on store shelves.

They will be hard to miss.

Other labels contain photos of a diseased heart, a lung tumor, a gangrenous foot, a sick baby connected to hospital monitors. In the lone display of humor, one displays a photo of a bent cigarette next to the words, "Tobacco Use Can Make You Impotent."

"These are things that really happen to people - it's not fake," said Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. "If you want to call it shock value - well, some people may be shocked. "

The labels are the product of cooperation between Health Minister Allan Rock and a coalition of public interest groups that have long advocated stronger warnings. The government also consulted advertising agencies, which helped fashion the labels for maximum impact.

If the warnings have an effect, it will come in part from their sheer size: The law requires that the labels cover at least half of the front and back panels of the cigarette packs, plus a portion of the side panels. Package inserts will contain more detailed information about the hazards of smoking and how to quit.

The country's bilingualism shouldn't interfere with smokers' getting the desired message. The front and back panels will be identical - except one will be in English, the other in French.

Health advocates clamored for the warnings and helped in their preparation. But no one can claim more credit than Garfield Mahood, a lobbyist who heads the Ottawa-based Non-smokers Rights Association. Mahood personally wrote many of the warnings and helped the government find the best graphic images.

Canada, he said, already laid claim to the strongest warning labels in the world. Since 1994, anti-smoking labels have covered as much as 40 percent of a package's total surface area and warned not only of disease but also of addiction.

In the United States, where tobacco companies until recently have denied that cigarettes are addictive, packages warn of direct effects such as lung cancer, emphysema and fetal harm - but not addiction. Also, the warnings are relatively inconspicuous, appearing only on the side panels.

Mahood said the old generation of Canadian warnings was adopted by several countries - including Australia, Singapore and Thailand - but not the United States. But, he said, those warnings were becoming too familiar, and too easy to ignore.

As in the United States, smoking rates in Canada declined in the 1980s but over the last several years have held steady at about 25 percent of the population. Smoking among young adults has increased to the point where about 40 percent of men and women in their early 20s light up.

In 1999, the government convened focus groups to see how smokers would react to powerful graphic images on cigarette packs. Although advocates admit the study was not scientific, the smokers said they strongly favored the photos and felt they would help persuade people to quit.

Advocates say the health minister created a climate for more powerful warnings than most people expected by going right to the anti-smoking forces for help.

"Now, we've upped the ante," said Mahood, adding that he hopes the warnings will reach people who are too addicted or stubborn to quit on their own. Perhaps, he said, children and spouses will become so repelled by the images that they will press the smoker to quit.

Tobacco companies fought the labels, at one point seeking, but failing to obtain, a court injunction that would have delayed the effective date.

Rob Parker, president of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers' Council, accused the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien of trying to attract favorable headlines by demonizing smoking.

He said smokers already know the risks but continue to smoke because it's pleasurable.

"Now, government comes along and just keeps on yelling louder and louder, `Quit stupid. If you didn't understand when we said it will kill you, here's an ugly picture that ought to do the trick,'" he told the Ottawa Citizen.

"It's falling on deaf ears."

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