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Cigarette Pack Warnings May Get Scarier

Senate Committee OKs Larger and More Graphic Warning Labels
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 25, 2007 -- Those familiar surgeon general's health warnings on cigarette packages may be getting a lot more noticeable under an agreement reached in a Senate committee Wednesday.

The deal would force the government to expand the size and color of the warnings on every pack of cigarettes. It would also allow the government to use graphic photos of cancer and other diseases caused by cigarettes in an effort to ward off potential smokers.

"Our warning labels have to be updated. We've had the same warning label on there for years. It's just become a normal part of the package," says Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the senior Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

The deal came while the committee was considering a bill giving the FDA new authority to regulate tobacco. While the agency has claimed jurisdiction over tobacco before, the Supreme Court has ruled that the FDA can't regulate cigarettes or their marketing unless Congress gives it new powers.

Smokers in Canada, the U.K., and Australia see stronger health warnings on cigarette packages than do smokers in the U.S.

Canadian packages use graphic images and stark health warnings like "Tobacco use can make you impotent."

'Scare Smokers'

A study released in March concluded that smokers in Canada and the other countries were more likely to take notice of current health warnings on cigarette packs than U.S. smokers were. Enzi referred to the study as he tried to convince committee members to accept his change.

"I think we ought to be trying to scare smokers or anyone considering smoking," Enzi says. "The warnings work. We should want kids thinking about taking up this deadly habit to have a bit of shock when they look at the package. We should want smokers to think about these health messages every time they light up."

The original bill would have given the FDA the option of increasing the size of package warnings, but would not have forced the change. It also would have allowed warnings to take up no more than half the package. Wednesday's deal requires the government to make the label changes and mandates than they take up no less than half the package.

"It seems to me we're dealing with people who are spending billions of dollars in marketing to get kids to smoke," says Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who backed the deal.

Public health groups and at least one tobacco company, Philip Morris, are backing the overall bill. Other cigarette makes are against it.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the bill's author, at first resisted attempts to enact stricter health warnings on cigarette packs. But after several members said they support the deal, Kennedy said, "I'd suggest that we take it."

The committee is scheduled to continue debate on the bill Thursday.

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