Smokers shrug at graphic new warning labels

Jade Morris brings a cigarette to her lips and inhales deeply as she looks over the new warning labels that will cover three-quarters of cigarette packages.

A woman in bed, dying from lung cancer caused by smoking. A young girl in the back seat of a car, coughing from cigarette fumes. A body in a bag, being zipped up.

All of these images are disturbing, the 18-year-old admits, but she said they’re too late to make an impact on her.

Morris has been smoking for the past six years.

“If you’re addicted, you’re addicted. No matter what you see you’re still going to do it. It’s the same as alcohol or even crack — you know it’s bad but you’re still going to do it because you’re addicted,” Morris said.

In a move that’s being hailed by anti-smoking advocates, Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced Thursday that a new repertoire of labels will cover 75 per cent of package facings and detail a wider raft of smoking-related ailments. The campaign will be rolled out in the New Year.

“The new health warning will feature a wide variety of messages (including) tobacco-related diseases that have not been considered in the past,” Aglukkaq said.

But for smokers confronted with the new labels at Yonge-Dundas Square Thursday afternoon, the general response was “Who cares?”

Erik Thompson, 55, said gruesome labels are of little consequence when he wants a cigarette.

“When you’re a smoker, you don’t pay attention to the package. You’re jonesing for a cigarette so you go ahead and buy a pack,” he said.

The new labels come at a time when many smokers are desensitized to old images of tumour-lined lungs and blighted hearts, said smoker Ally Kuehl. The 21-year-old started smoking when she was 14.

“I want to quit. This is the dirtiest habit there is and I wish I never started. I think it’s a good thing that they’re putting it out there,” Kuehl said.

A photo of anti-smoking activist Barb Tarbox, who died of lung cancer in 2003 at the age of 42, is included among the four new labels.

The line, “This is what dying of lung cancer looks like,” accompanies the haunting photo.

Aglukkaq said diseases such as bladder cancer will now get billing on the increasingly disturbing labels, which will introduce a rotation of 16 new messages over time.

The packaging will also include a toll-free telephone number and web addresses offering access to free advice on quitting.

Aglukkaq could not say precisely when the labels would appear, citing regulatory requirements that, among other things, dictate a 75-day consultation period with the tobacco industry.

Fierce lobbying by the country’s three big tobacco firms seemed to have successfully shelved plans to implement a new labelling strategy last September.

Then, the minister indicated the labeling changes had been put on hold, with Ottawa making a battle against contraband cigarette sales its priority.

Thursday’s announcement that the government would go ahead with new labels drew criticism from Imperial Tobacco Canada Limited, which challenged the government to address the issue of contraband cigarettes instead of increasing regulations on the legal tobacco industry.

However, the move drew praise from prominent anti-smoking groups and physicians, who said such labels encourage smokers to quit and dissuade others from picking up the habit, which causes 37,000 premature deaths a year in Canada.

“Strong graphic warnings on tobacco products make the information about the dangers of smoking accessible to the public with a clear, simple, sometimes gruesome direct message,” said University of Ottawa respirologist Dr. Gonzalo Alvarez.

Alvarez says Canada was the first country to introduce graphic health warnings on cigarette packages in 2001 and that the new move would push the nation back into the forefront of that anti-smoking strategy.

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