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Between the Lines: The Court of Appeal

A decision striking down graphic cigarette labeling may be the right one.

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Thursday, September 06, 2012

Whether you view government as the last foil to corporate greed or as a progressively more annoying and intrusive "nanny state," a U.S. Appeals court in Washington, D.C. has just rendered a decision that (stunningly) reeks of common sense.

Striking down an attempted mandate to label cigarette packaging with gruesome pictures of oral cancers and tracheotomy victims has probably prevented an entire generation of wannabe bad-asses from viewing cigarettes as something even cooler than their parents did when they marveled at pictures of Kurt Cobain or Kate Moss sucking down a Chesterfield King at a star-studded Hollywood after-hours party.

When I was a 23-year-old rocker kid with two-tone hair halfway down my back, I lived in Seattle. There was a store there that sold Death cigarettes, the packaging of which featured a Jolly Roger-ish, white-on-black skull and crossbones that made them, ironically, probably the most honestly marketed product of their kind.

It was 1992, and I was one of many 23-year-old musicians who had moved to the West Coast—a wee bit too late—in search of some flannel coattail we might be able to ride to rock 'n' roll fame without working too hard. In that punky, street-informed scene, if you didn't know someone who knew the just OD'd guitar player from Seven Year Bitch, the next coolest thing was smoking Death cigarettes.

Even more disturbingly, it was a 16-year-old that turned me on to them.

Flash forward to the post-Internet, post-smartphone America of 2012. Sorry to break it to you, parents, but your kids are way, way smarter than you; they know when something's up.

My son has the ability to read into levels of irony that would make Shakespeare proud, and he's two. Don't try to bullshit him—he knows there's not actually a giraffe inside either of my fisted hands, and he can, all by himself, access the YouTube app on my iPhone to retrieve videos of Fireman Sam, Elmo or the Swedish Chef.

When he's 13—if he's anything like I was—pictures of emphysemic lungs on a cigarette pack will only make those cigarettes more attractive and desirable to him. There's just something innately suicidal about kids that age, whether as a reflection of some true misery or just an intense desire to prove that you're a reckless, wanton character who's either totally indestructible or just doesn't give a rat's ass what happens to you.

If your goal is to make cigarettes look anything but cool to teenagers, you should push for requiring packaging that's as graphically boring as you could imagine—plain black text on a white pack with everything the same font size. Just that simple action would instantly render impotent any subliminal arousal or imprinting that might be blaring from the snout of a phallic-faced Joe Camel, or the oh-so-feminine daintiness of a Virginia Slim.

I'm sure the people and organizations that are fighting for this graphic labeling—and the case may well wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court—do so with the noblest intentions, and I applaud their dedication to a cause that seeks to improve public health, save lives and ultimately reduce health care costs for everyone.

But to fight with such fervor for something that could easily backfire strikes me as myopic, unrealistically ideological and insulting to the intelligence of consumers, especially the young, impressionable ones that the protective efforts are ostensibly targeting.

If you're going to take this particular tack to try to reduce the appeal of a dangerous, ruthlessly addictive product that more than likely hooks you when you're young, don't do anything to make that product shout from the shelves. Do everything in your power to muffle its voice to a whisper.

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