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Ask the Expert: Q&A with WLF's Rebecca Perl on FDA's New Tobacco Pack Warnings

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Field Reports sat down with Rebecca Perl, Associate Director of Communications and Special Projects, to discuss the ongoing legal battles between the FDA and tobacco companies, who are suing to block new graphic pack warnings.

Current cigarette pack from US

Planned pack warning for the US

Tobacco companies are suing the FDA over new label warnings. Can you give us an idea of what this means to tobacco control advocates, and why pack warnings are so important?

If the tobacco industry is slapping a suit on the FDA over pack warnings, it means the FDA is doing something important. It’s riled up the tobacco companies, and that’s a good thing. That’s because the industry knows that pack warnings work, that warnings discourage smoking, and that graphic, gross pictures make smokers think twice about smoking their first cigarette in the morning or a cigarette over a drink with their friends. I see pack warnings as part of mass media—as a mass communication tool. And it’s a great one, because every smoker has it in their pocket or their purse, and they’re looking at it 15 times a day, on average, so it’s the best place to speak directly to a smoker.

Why are graphic pack warnings being enacted now?

There’s relatively new legislation that the FDA is finally putting into place, called the Family Smoking and Tobacco Control Act. It is one of the last [pieces of legislation] that Ted Kennedy pushed through before his death. This act gives the FDA broad powers to regulate tobacco, and regulating pack warnings is their first big action, I would say, that really matters. The FDA is truly beginning their regulation process. They’re looking at the product, at what’s in the product, how the product is advertised and sold. They’re looking at additives to the product, such as menthol; this is really important because it is the most popular flavoring. They’re looking at broad regulation, and pack warnings is a critical piece of the whole puzzle.

Tobacco companies are claiming that these warnings are ‘compelled speech’ prohibited by the First Amendment, and they are complaining that they’ve been uniquely singled out. Is there any validity in that argument?

Tobacco is the only product out there that, when used as it’s supposed to be used, kills one in two. It’s unique. Tobacco has—for the most part—been completely unregulated up until now. Lots of products are regulated for safety—alcohol, food, products for children. Now it’s finally tobacco’s turn.

Do you think graphic pack warnings works best as tools to encourage people to quit, or as tools to prevent people from starting?

I think they can be used for both. A smoker pulls a pack out of his/her pocket or purse and puts it on the table, and everybody sees it, not just smokers.

We’ve been reading a lot about how tobacco companies are pouring money into social media. They’re developing dissolvable tobacco strips, which may or may not be subject to regulation. They are eager to exploit every loophole—they’ve been described as “one step ahead of the sheriff.” Do you think these graphic pack warnings will force the industry to find other tricks, or do you think they’ll just start concentrating their resources in less-regulated countries?

I think they’ll do both. They’re very clever, and they have a lot of resources. They tend to be ahead of the curve, and they will come up with new products. The tobacco companies always come up with new ways to get around bans and legislation—they’re quite canny about it. As we get more and more smoke-free laws across the world (which means people can’t smoke in restaurants, bars and workplaces), the industry will continue to offer new products that don’t involve secondhand smoke, like snus and e-cigarettes. They will continue to try to addict people to nicotine products, and they will continue to figure out ways to advertise, through social media or whatever the next big thing is. They’re very good at that. And presumably we’ll find new ways to fight them. It’s ongoing.

In Australia, plain packaging has just been approved by the lower house of the Australian parliament. Tobacco companies are mounting legal challenges there, too. Can you speak a little about that battle?

Tobacco companies are suing over plain packaging in Australia, which is even a step further than what we’re doing here in the U.S., and the reason is the same—they recognize plain packaging as a new area that is a threat to them, and so they’re going to throw all their money, power and weight—especially legislative weight—against this. They’re going to do everything they can to see that this doesn’t happen, because they know that the pack is a really great marketing tool—it promotes their logo and their brand with style and color, and if the industry can’t have those things, their market share will suffer and they know it. They’re really concerned about this, so it means that the advocacy community has hit a nerve, and that we’re on the right track. This is an area where advocates and governments can’t back down. And so far the Australian government has not.

To read Rebecca Perl’s previous post on graphic pack warnings, click here.

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