WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Cigarette warning labels should cover at least half of the package’s front and back and use graphic color photos of cancer and other health effects to deter smokers, U.S. Senators said on Wednesday.
The effort was part of ongoing debate on a bill that would allow Food and Drug Administration to regulate but not ban tobacco products, a proposal supported by public health groups and the nation’s largest cigarette maker.
“Shocking messages convey the truth in no uncertain terms and have been known to have an impact,” said Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi. He put forward the amendment creating a minimum standard for regulation of the labels.
Under the original bill, the proposed FDA regulatory committee would have authority to decide what the labels say and show, and how they are placed, modifying them over time as research findings change, according to Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who sponsored the bill.
Kennedy chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is expected to vote on the tobacco bill on Thursday.
Enzi’s amendment, which Kennedy said he accepted, would require the agency to mandate warning labels covering at least 50 percent of the front and rear panels of the package. The labels would also have to include color images of the health consequences of smoking — including oral cancer and gangrene.
The black and white Surgeon General’s warnings currently found on cigarette packages were mandated by Congress in 1984, but many say they are ineffective.
“The general assessment in the public health community is that the four rotating labels have lost almost any public health benefits that they may once have had. They are seen as diluted and old, and they don’t influence smokers,” Harvard University medical historian and cigarette expert Allan Brandt said in a phone interview.
Graphic labels in countries including Canada and Brazil cover up to a full side of the pack, according to Brandt, and research has shown that they work.
“The 13-year-old is not reading the fine print. What will impact them is a picture. What will impact them is a color. What will impact them is something different than they’ve seen before,” Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said at Wednesday’s committee meeting.
“Any tool in our arsenal that makes people think twice about taking up tobacco shouldn’t be an option. It should be a requirement,” Enzi added.
The bill also would also give the FDA power to restrict tobacco advertising, prevent cigarette sales to minors, bar misrepresentation of tobacco’s dangers and order removal of dangerous ingredients from cigarettes.
The legislation would set standards for “reduced-risk” tobacco products, which could not be marketed as safer than regular cigarettes without FDA verification.
A similar bill has been introduced in the House.
Altria Group Inc. unit Philip Morris USA, maker of top-selling Marlboro cigarettes, supports the bill, while smaller tobacco groups such as Reynolds American Inc. oppose it.