Look, mate, scary cigarette packs!

Miriam Grace A. Go
Picture warnings can slash a significant segment of tobacco companies’ existing market, as well as prevent the formation of a new generation of smokers

MANILA, Philippines – WARNING: Don’t read this article if you haven’t had your meal.

This has images of swollen infected gums and teeth with thick rust-like stains; the foot of a live person that shows a preview of decomposing tissues; a piece of flesh that looks like a grilled pork chop but is actually a lung with destroyed and blackened air sacs; a yellowish heart; an old man who breathes through a hole in his neck; a 34-year-old Caucasian as fragile as a starving Ethiopian before he died of lung cancer.

I know, you’ve lost your appetite. The intention is something like that: make you lose your taste, your craving…for smoking.

These photographs—actually, samples of what can be printed as “health warnings” on cigarette packs—are meant to scare smokers, or anybody curious to become one. This can happen to you if you don’t kick the addiction; or—looking at that photo of an emaciated newborn fighting for life through a medical tube—to your future child when he shall have inhaled enough of secondhand smoke from you.



Several studies have found that graphic health warnings are a most effective way of making people quit smoking or forget about picking up the habit.

A survey in Canada, as early as 2001, showed that 50% of smokers had increased motivation to quit smoking because of the graphic warnings introduced in their country that year; 21% of the smokers immediately stopped lighting another stick when they saw the warnings. In the Philippines, youth surveyed in 2008 said related diseases shown on sample packets discouraged them from buying cigarettes.

Picture warnings, therefore, can slash a significant segment of tobacco companies’ existing market, as well as prevent the formation of a new generation of smokers. This threatens to cut the profits of the global industry, where the 6 leading companies raked in a combined US$35 billion in 2010, according to the latest Tobacco Atlas published by the World Lung Foundation.

But this can also save the lives of more people. In 2011, smoking killed about 6 million persons. Another estimated 600,000 died of illnesses caused by smoke they involuntarily got from smokers around them.

Australia gets it. In that country of 22 million people, where “only” 18,000 die of smoking-related illnesses every year, the government has taken a hard-line stance.

They didn’t stop at just requiring tobacco products to feature on their packets the most horrible pictures of their harmful effects, which a number of other countries are already doing. It has carried the campaign higher by making all tobacco products sport a uniform plain, unattractive dark olive green packaging starting December this year. No trademark colors, no product logos, no brand imageries.

Australia’s Department of Health and Ageing, on its website, has cited research that shows how plain packaging would make the picture warnings stand out better, and thus increase their effectiveness. The packaging would also be less attractive to adults and children alike.

The Philippines, in comparison, doesn’t seem to care.

Slew of court cases

In this country of 92 million people, where smoking kills more than 80,000 a year, Congress killed the bill seeking to require picture-based warnings on cigarette products. This was despite our commitment, under the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), to pass such law by September 2008.

When a health secretary, Esperanza Cabral, issued an administrative order in 2010 to make the graphic warnings possible in the absence of a law, the government got a slew of court cases filed by the tobacco companies. We’re making do with small text warnings that cigarette buyers don’t even pay attention to.

Both the Philippines and Australia are parties to the FCTC. In fact, both have been hauled to court by the tobacco firms over tobacco packaging policies.

The difference is: the Australia government—all branches of it—not only stood pat, it fought hard.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in whose watch the bill seeking to require plain packaging for tobacco products was introduced, vowed his administration to be “the most hard-line regime for cigarette packaging anywhere in the world.” The new PM comes from his Labor party, too. The Senate and the Lower House passed the measure within a year. The Supreme Court upheld the law when British American Tobacco questioned it.

The Philippine government—all branches of it—is just looking the other way.

We have a chain-smoking President who has yet to push, or at the very least express support, for graphic health warning. The House of Representatives, well, it killed the bill in 2008, remember? (In fact, it also significantly slashed the proposed rate for excise tax increase on tobacco products recently.) The courts? They’re taking forever to decide the 5 cases filed separately by the tobacco firms against Cabral’s AO, while an injunction is in effect.

Action on Smoking and Health UK, an advocacy group, explains why any legislation for plain packaging scares the hell out of tobacco firms. In these times when advertisement of tobacco products are banned in countries that signed the FCTC, a pack that carries a logo and trademark colors becomes “the tobacco’s silent salesman, calling out from retailers’ shelves and displayed by smokers 20 times a day.”

So if all cigarettes are packed in uniform dark olive green boxes, largely covered by unpleasant or shocking pictures of illnesses, and bearing, below the photo, the name of the brand using a government-prescribed typeface, it’ll be like killing even the “silent salesman.”

Glamor is gone

That’s why it was a significant victory when Australia’s Supreme Court upheld on August 15 the government’s plain packaging law for tobacco products. It’s a first for any national government even in the face of bullying by the industry for choosing to protect its citizens’ health.

“The government’s plain packaging legislation is a world first and sends a clear message that the glamour is gone,” says the Australian government’s health website. “Cigarette packs will now only show the death and disease that can come from smoking.”

Yes, the decaying mouth, rotting foot flesh, severely spotted lungs, a heart as pale as uncooked bacon; the smoker’s neck “drilled” with a hole for air passage; a young man sucked dead by lung cancer; and the helpless baby about to die from all the nicotine forced on him.

Okay, you may eat now…and, hopefully, shall have lost the appetite to light a stick afterwards. – Rappler.com

(All sample packaging designs are from the Australian government health site http://www.yourhealth.gov.au)

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Miriam Grace A. Go

MIriam Grace A Go’s areas of interest are local governance, campaigns and elections, and anything Japanese.