HHS calls for graphic warnings on cigarette packs

Cigarette packs sold in the U.S. could soon bear the image of an addict injecting a cigarette into his arm or a dying cancer patient.

The images are among several dozen proposals that will be pared down to nine color images and textual warning statements to be featured prominently on cigarette packages and advertisements starting in 2012. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday unveiled the proposed warnings — the most significant changes to health warnings on cigarettes and advertisements in more than 25 years — along with its broader strategic plan for dealing with the public health epidemic.

"Today, FDA takes a crucial step toward reducing the tremendous toll of illness and death caused by tobacco use by proposing to dramatically change how cigarette packages and advertising look in this country. When the rule takes effect, the health consequences of smoking will be obvious every time someone picks up a pack of cigarettes," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement announcing the new strategy. "This is a concrete example of how FDA’s new responsibilities for tobacco product regulation can benefit the public’s health."

The public will have until Jan. 9, 2011, to comment on the proposals. HHS will make its choice by June 22, and by Oct. 22, 2012, manufacturers will no longer be allowed to distribute cigarettes for sale in the United States that do not display the new graphic health warnings. 

The strategy is required by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, enacted last year. The labeling requirement is part of a broader strategy aimed at reducing the 443,000 tobacco-related deaths each year in the U.S.

Other aspects include: 

• The healthcare reform law gives Americans in private and public health plans access to recommended preventive care, like tobacco-use cessation, at no additional cost;

• Last year's Recovery Act invested $225 million to support local, state and national efforts to promote comprehensive tobacco control and expand tobacco quitlines;

• The 2009 Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act aims to stop the illegal sale of tobacco products over the Internet and through mail order, including the illegal sale to youth; 

• The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 gives FDA the authority to regulate the manufacture, marketing and distribution of tobacco products. It restricts the use of the terms "light" "low," and "mild;" bans characterizing fruit, candy and spice flavors from cigarettes; and puts in place restrictions on the sale and distribution of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products to youth;

• The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 raised the federal cigarette tax by 62 cents per pack.