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What FDA's new cigarette warnings should say

By Alexandra Petri


Tobacco is a dirty weed. I like it. It satisfies no normal need. I like it. It makes you thin, it makes you lean, It takes the hair right off your bean. It's the worst darn stuff I've ever seen. I like it.
--G. L. Hemminger, 1915

I love these ad campaigns. First, because they've been doing similar things in Europe (and Canada, or, as I like to call it, Cheap, Knock-Off Edition Europe) for years. I was hoping, if we ever copied something that Europe did, it would be the metric system (it makes me think I'm tall and driving fast!), or the cuisine, or the ability to be deeply moved by movies with subtitles. But so far, the only things we have imported are things like a confusing health-care system in which the government is heavily involved and, now, these cigarette warning labels.

The FDA did a bang-up job with the images, though. The pictures are great. They are so terrifying that they make me want to start smoking, just so I can look at them and be scared into quitting! I love the graphic of the mother blowing smoke onto her infant child. "Here, Denny," she seems to be saying. "Have some smoke. I assume that Nicotine is a vitamin."

Also, how does the recruiting process for these PSA pictures work? I imagine there's some sort of open call for models. "Yes," I picture the judges saying. "You look like a child who has been harmed by tobacco use." Or maybe people just list it on their resume: "34, 36, 38; 6'4"; people frequently tell me that I look like someone whose smoking habit has given him a stroke and/or heart disease." I certainly hope these are actors; if not, can you imagine your heirs gathering at your wake? "The mere sight of Grandma is turning thousands of teens off smoking!"

Also, whose teeth are those? They are disgusting.

If you really want people to stop smoking, I think you should play not on their sense of disgust but on the misconceptions that might lead them to smoke in the first place. My grandmother, a lifelong smoker (so far!) maintains that she started smoking because if anyone got fresh with you, you could fight him off with your lit cigarette, thereby protecting your virtue and looking cool while you were doing it. At least I think this is what she said. (Hi, Grandma! Thanks for reading.)

In general, I hate campaigns that say "With the money you spend on this each year, you could, for instance, buy a Louis Vuitton bag!" Usually, this makes me feel vindicated. "Wow, for the price of that ominous-looking bag, I could drink coffee every day for a year!" But for cigarettes, I think this could be poignant. "With what you spend on cigarettes, you could buy a life-saving throat surgery!" The elements of irony would be really cutting.

Here are a few other slogans -- and some graphic images, as opposed to the other kind of image. You know the old saying: more flies are caught with honey than with creepy pictures of old men clutching random body parts.

Smoking: There is something on fire! You are holding it!

Smoking: Those cool guys behind your middle school are actually wards of the state.

FDA label:

My proposed label:

Smoking: Your coat will always smell like the inside of a dive bar.

FDA label:

My proposed label:

Smoking: There is only one place you can do this in all NYC, and it is a one square-foot space already occupied by a creepy homeless man.

Smoking: Ulysses S. Grant smoked 20 cigars a day. He is widely regarded as a mediocre president whose administration was plagued by corruption.

Smoking: The other people who do this are often truck drivers.

By Alexandra Petri  | November 10, 2010; 12:31 PM ET
Categories:  Bad Advice, Petri, Worst Things Ever  | Tags:  FDA, cigarettes  
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Next: My son is a cyborg -- 'My Son is Gay' and parenting in the digital village


WARNING - Reading this comment may be hazardous to your mental health!

From the comments Petri gets, it's obvious that most people don't have a clue what she is talking about. Fortunately, I just completed the new Petri 101 course at Far East Harvard Community College (taught in Chinese). Here are my notes from the class:

1. A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walked into a bar. Then they got up, and walked around the bar.... If you think this is the bar where Good Will was Hunting, you just flunked the course. (Do you like apples?)

2. Petri's writing is dense with hilarious references to obscure things. Each word is significant. To understand her, you must do the following... repeatedly:
_a. Whip out your google.
_b. Google it for all you're worth.
_c. Keep googling until you have the solution in hand.

3. If you still aren't laughing, try the following:
_a. Assume she means the opposite of what she means.
_b. If that doesn't work, assume she means the opposite of the opposite of what she means.
_c. If that doesn't work, assume she is talking about Sarah Palin.
_d. If that doesn't work, imagine her getting a colonoscopy.

4. If you're still not laughing, keep trying:
_a. Click on every link in the article, and read the entire linked article.
_b. Watch every linked video all the way to the end. (unless you see yourself, or a witch in the video)
_c. Click on every link in the linked article.
_d. Watch every linked video in the linked article to the end. (unless you REALLY have to wee wee)
_e. Repeat steps c. through e.

5. If you made it this far, congratulations! Now laugh amongst yourselves.

Since most readers are probably Chinese, here's the translation of this comment:

Posted by: divtune | November 10, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I noticed that Philip Morris supported these regulations and that caught my interest. It's fascinating cuz it turns out that they've been working with regulators to help themselves. I saw an article from the NIH on about this. It was quite interesting... and shocking too.

Posted by: james95 | November 10, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

I have personal experience with this kind of anti-smoking campaign, and I can tell you that it won't work.

I worked in an E.R. with a cute, young, heavy smoking billing clerk. For awhile, every time someone with emphysema or lung cancer came in, I would tell her, "This is what you'll look like in a few years."

It just made her more nervous, and she relieved her anxiety by smoking more cigarettes.

So Grandma, if you're reading this, light up another one. You probably need it right now!

But I think I know what would work. How about a picture of a beautiful, sexy, leaning forward, shoulder scrunching, buxom blonde with big, red, puckery, pouty lips? The caption would read:

"If you quite smoking these, you can have THESE!"

And I know the perfect model. What do you say, Petri?

Posted by: divtune | November 10, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

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