Government imposes tough new warning labels on tobacco industry products

A picture is worth a thousand words — at least that is what the Canadian government is counting on.

 Beginning next year, cigarette packs will be a lot more jarring as they’ll feature graphic photos and stern messages about the dangers of tobacco use.

For example, one label includes a photograph of anti-smoking crusader Barbra Tarbox on her deathbed.

Health Canada is once again focusing on ways to increase awareness of the health hazards associated with the use of tobacco products by imposing a new Tobacco Act.

The first attempt by the government to bring public awareness to the risks and health issues associated with tobacco use was enforced in 2000. Warning labels then featured illustrations and text highlighting the most common illnesses and effects of smoking.Health Canada hopes new warning labels will encourage smokers to butt out and kick the habit for good.
Photo by: Celeste De Muelenaere

This year, the Harper government pushed forward the Tobacco Products Labeling Regulations Act. Canadian Cancer Society spokeswoman Angeline Webb says that this time around the images on cigarette products will depict “the truth of tobacco use.”

And the truth is that “tobacco use is the leading cause of cancer death.”

Although warning labels are already found on cigarette packages, the tobacco industry is still a multi-million dollar a year industry — or as Webb calls it, “a recession-proof industry.”

There are currently 565,250 smokers in Alberta alone and about 3,000 Albertans die every year from tobacco use.

“People are very good at tuning out and denying if they don’t want to know.” – psychologist Rosalyn Golfman

The biggest change imposed by the Act requires that 75 per cent of the cigarettes and little cigar packages feature 16 new graphic images.

Webb regularly deals with tobacco-related issues and believes that this type of health information is an important and effective approach to the prevention and reduction of tobacco use.

“These types of pictures are an accurate health outcome of tobacco use. No matter how horrific the images may appear to some people, it’s the truth,” Webb says.

Naomi Grant, a professor of psychology at Mount Royal University who holds a PhD in social psychology, says that images can be more effective than text in grabbing people’s attention.

“The purpose of the visual images is to create fear. And then hopefully that fear will change their attitudes and then in turn their behaviour.”

Psychology of visual images

These pictures will no longer merely be illustrations that list the health risks of smoking in words, but rather, what Health Canada spokesperson Jacinthe David calls testimonials — actual pictures of people suffering from smoking-related illnesses.

David, who is a manager in the Controlled Substances and Tobacco Directorate, says that these labels are a way for the government to communicate the health effects of tobacco use.

“The older warnings were still working but weren’t as effective anymore. We had done some research and it showed that people were getting immune to them.”

Current warning labels found on packs are mild in comparison to the new labels coming next year.
Photo by: Celeste De Muelenaere
The research done by Health Canada that David is referring to is a study that was done in 2007.

“The research showed that 52 per cent of adult smokers reported that the warning labels had been effective in increasing their desire to quit, or getting them to attempt to quit, or smoke less,” David says.

While this suggests that warning labels can be an effective preventative tool, Canadian psychologist Rosalyn Golfman warns that people can turn a blind eye when it interferes with their desires.

“If people want to do something, they’ve got ways of compartmentalizing it and not necessarily paying attention to it, she says. “With addictions, people will find a way around it.”

“I would probably think that the written text has been somewhat helpful, so the visual should help too. But again, from a psychological point of view, if people want to do it, they are just going to ignore it.

“People are very good at tuning out and denying if they don’t want to know.”

Labels marketing tool for governement

While many people remain skeptical on the outcome of these new warnings, Webb says she believes that consumers have a right to know and be informed of what they are getting themselves into when they take up an addictive habit such as smoking.

She also says she believes that the warning labels will prevent young people from being fooled into taking up smoking by tobacco industry campaigns — marketing tools are designed to misinform and entice the youth of today.

“These warnings help illustrate the end result. And what better way to do that than to put it on the products themselves?” she says. They “increase knowledge, help de-normalize tobacco use and they can prevent youth uptake of tobacco,” Webb adds.

Tobacco manufacturers and importers have until March 2012 to comply with the new labeling criteria, while retailers have until June 2012 to ensure all packages on their shelves meet the new Tobacco Act regulations.

The Calgary Journal asked young Calgarians what they thought of Health Canada’s new graphic labeling of tobacco products.

Here’s what they said:

  • “I don’t even look at them. They don’t even bother me. I’m still going to smoke no matter what.” – Sarah Gage (22)
  • “I don’t think they make any difference. People are still addicted to them. Nothing stops you from smoking because it is not a choice anymore.” – Eileen Ibrahim (21)
  • “The only people I can see that it might effect are young people who are just starting to smoke and who know someone going through what’s on the pictures. Because then they have this constant reminder of whoever it is that they know.” – Stuart McBeth (18)
  • “I don’t think they have worked yet. I don’t think it will change people’s minds. Change has to come from within a person, not from the government. I think a more effective tool would be free smoking cessation products, like what they have in B.C. now.” – Kelsey Brown (28)
  • “A picture isn’t really going to make a difference. Maybe a bit but it’s not going to make Canada stop smoking.” – Kris Klironomos (19)
  • “I just think that it is not going to be a deterrence. People will make the conscious decision to smoke and it needs to be a conscious decision to quit. Smokers know that it isn’t good for them but they are still making a conscious decision to smoke.” – Sh’vaun Nosworthy (23)
  • “Not for me personally. I think everyone at this stage knows the effects of cigarettes.” – Jeff Morrice (31)
  • “Nothing will make a difference. Smokers will smoke.” – Alex Mykyta (22)
  • “It probably won’t make any difference because smokers are going to smoke anyways. A picture won’t make a difference or stop them from doing it.” – Jill Van Dyke (21)