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Will graphic new cigarette warnings scare people into quitting?

This is one more explicit graphics for cigarette labels released by Health Canadlast year. | AP

This is one of the more explicit graphics for cigarette labels released by Health Canada last year. | AP

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Will graphic images of corpses, cancer-ridden lungs and a guy exhaling smoke through a tracheotomy hole in his neck cause smokers to quit?

That’s the question after the Food and Drug Administration last week said it will begin requiring tobacco marketers to cover the top half of cigarette boxes and 20 percent of tobacco advertisements with nine bluntly graphic anti-smoking images beginning late next year.

The goal is to slash consumption of cigarettes among the nation’s 43 million smokers and prevent millions more, especially teens, from starting.

The FDA selected the grisly images, which include pictures of rotting teeth and gums, from 36 proposed last year.

How effective they will be is a matter of debate.

About 40 countries, including Canada and Mexico, already require similar graphic warnings, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Gregory Connolly, professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and director of its Center for Global Tobacco Control, said the images aren’t as scary and over the top as Canada’s images, which he notes have not lowered that nation’s smoking rates.

“These messages are better,” he said. “They show respect for smokers and adverse health consequences.”

A recent international study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that generally, such images are effective.

About 25 percent to more than 50 percent of smokers say the frightening images make them more likely to quit.

“Research evidence shows that these images make a real difference,” said Sherry Emery, a senior researcher for the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “No other product is as fundamentally deadly, and we’ve known that for over 40 years. These images may help bump that out of background noise to something people might think more actively about.”

Some health specialists say the graphic warnings may offer only temporary deterrence and that smokers who repeatedly see such graphic images may become desensitized to the message about the health risks of smoking.

“We become immune to the negative warnings over time,” said Jonathan Whiteson, director of the Cardiac and Pulmonary Wellness and Rehabilitation Program at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “The more graphic the image, the more likely the message will become marginalized.”

Cigarette consumption has dropped from about 42 percent of the population since the mid-1960s, but it has remained at about 21 percent since 2003 — about one in five adults.

The government hopes to cut the percentage of American smokers to 12 percent by 2020 and reduce the number of deaths tied to tobacco use, now about 443,000 a year.

Gannett News Service

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