Cigarette Packaging Rant

Anti-smoking image

Yup, I’ve been on a rant this week over two policy rulings affecting how cigarettes are packaged because the issue brings into focus how we think about health, politics and media influence.

Mulling over the federal judge’s decision early this week, I noted that the court ruled graphic images and bold warning labels would harm tobacco companies’ free speech rights. As a result, the judge halted the FDA plans to require new warnings and graphics on cigarette packs in 2012.

Then news broke from Australia that the parliament passed a law requiring cigarette packs to have drab colors in addition to graphic warnings and images.

In other words, cigarette packs would need to drop colors or messages that make the product seem appealing.
What’s interesting are the ways in which policy-makers use science—or the lack of science–to make such judgments.

For example, the judge in the US case wrote that the graphic images adopted by the FDA were “more about shocking and repelling than warning.” The judge noted that the role of the FDA was to provide “factual information.” Period.

Media scholars will attest that shock value, just like beauty, rests in the eye of the beholder. Personally I find most of the FDA images tame. Take, for example, the photo of a man with a cigarette in hand, and a plume of smoke arising from a hole in his throat. But here’s the thing: the man’s face has been cropped in the photo frame so we don’t see forehead, hairs, eyes and nose.

In other words, the image lacks character and soul. The man is nearly faceless.

Media researchers have found that viewers are much less likely to identify with a photo when we can’t see the full face. That’s why feminist scholars object to images of naked woman that are headless: such imagery objectifies women, and we focus instead on the body as detached from the person.

The judge said the images were shocking but I have a different perspective: the faceless and soul-less image actually allows viewers to distance themselves from the photo because it’s hard to identify with a faceless throat.

One of the first rules you learn in persuasion is to pull in the viewer by encouraging her to see herself in the image and message.

But these images don’t do that, and the judge has made a leap of faith without the evidence.
See the FDA warning labels and images at


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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2 Responses to Cigarette Packaging Rant

  1. Campaigns on the effects of smoking are acceptable as we are entitled to our own opinions and if we do decide to smoke, it is still our choice. If cigarette companies have their ways of enticing adults to try their products, the government can also come up with a strategy to inform the public about the ill effects of smoking and not drive them away.


  2. Ecigger says:

    You make a very interesting point. It’s much more important to give people an image to which they can relate, one that has a face, instead of trying to scare them with images of people with smoking-related conditions. I’ve always believed there are much more creative and ingenious ways to make smokers quit


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