You all might have read the news a month back about how the U.S. will finally place big scary labels on cigarette packages starting next year. Of course in America’s libertarian/corporate culture, this wasn’t met with joy for the many lives these labels will save but with anger and threats of lawsuits—even though this action is required by the International Framework Convention on Tobacco Control—a global treaty that 173 countries signed onto in 2003. (Ok, I’m sure you’re not surprised that the U.S. is one of 22 countries that didn’t ratify it.) But fortunately, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act creates a mandate to bring U.S. labels into line with most of the rest of the world (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t strike this down as impeding free speech—and I give the odds of that 50/50).
You might also have seen that Australia has raised the bar on cigarette labels and wants to cover up cigarette packages almost entirely with graphic images and olive green coloring–as smokers find this color unattractive–and only allow the brand name of cigarettes to be present in a standardized color and font. (Naturally Philip Morris is also suing the government to try to prevent this.)
Both of these are valuable steps in the ratcheting down on tobacco companies’ undeserved freedom to manipulate consumers into using deadly products. For those already addicted, this won’t prevent them from buying cigarettes, but it will reduce people from trying cigarettes in the first place (especially if coupled with regular increases in cigarette taxes and further clamping down on product placements in films, TV, and everywhere else they crop up). Add to those important measures, the efforts to use social marketing to denormalize smoking, and we’re making fine progress in the tobacco wars (particularly considering our well-financed foes). But what else can we do to help reduce smoking?
Here’s a suggestion: How about a law that officially changes the name of “cigarette” to “cancer stick”? That name shift to the uglier slang term for cigarette might effectively and permanently reframe cigarettes in a way that makes them completely unappealing. Imagine if the news media, anytime they talked about cigarettes were obligated to use the term “cancer stick.”
“Cancer stick sales have decreased 2 percent in 2012.”
“Philip Morris has made overtures to buy R. J. Reynolds, the 2nd largest cancer stick company in the U.S.”
And if it also infected daily interactions?
“I’ll take a pack of the Marlboro cancer sticks please.”
“Excuse me, can I bum a cancer stick?”
“Sure, take the whole pack. They were killing me anyway.”
Granted, a cigarette by any other name would be just as deadly, but drawing attention to their danger directly in their name might help reduce sales even more than scary labels do.
Of course, I don’t see this law passing in the U.S., but I could see it passing in a small European country—Sweden or Denmark perhaps?—or maybe Australia. In fact, Australian lawmakers should pursue this law now while they’re trying to pass the labeling law and make a backroom deal with Philip Morris to withdraw the name change law if Phillip Morris drops its labeling lawsuit. That’d be a good bit of political wrangling—wrangling that even the Marlboro Man would find impressive, assuming he hadn’t died of cancer back in 2002.