“Deadly and Unglamorous”: Cigarette Warning Labels, Class War, and Chocolate

An era is ending, an era, which for better or for worse, I’ve called my own for many years, and, until the reality of my mortality catches up with me, an era of which I will be a relic for some years to come. Next year, the FDA will require fifty percent of both the front of every cigarette pack to include one of nine images depicting the negative effects of smoking.

I can’t say I’m upset, nor particularly outraged (as I was in 2008 when the Smoke-free Illinois act took effect). I’m also not particularly interested in the legality or constitutionality of the act, and the effort has my sympathy, if not my support. An informed consumer is as close as we can expect to get to a free consumer, and perhaps consumers require visceral imagery to truly understand the consequences of their purchases. In this way, shaming smokers into hiding their addictions may make this campaign doubly effective.

Yet, an element of shame lingers around much of what we in the western world consume, but only with certain products, like tobacco, do we recognize this shame in the culture at large. While somewhat ostentatious during a depression, it is still acceptable to drive a sixty-five thousand dollar vehicle that gets fourteen miles to the gallon while the pollution from internal combustion engines irrevocably alters the climate. It’s still posh to buy water in plastic bottles that have every likelihood of surviving into the next millennium.

Dime and Punishment

People certainly understand the negative consequences of these purchases intellectually, but perhaps to change their behavior they need to understand them viscerally. Perhaps every one around them needs a constant reminder of the derision they deserve for the shameful decisions as consumers.

Consumers of meat, eggs, and dairy, could see the tortured cows, chickens, and pigs on every animal product they purchase. Fifty percent of every article of clothing produced by child and slave labor (this would be most articles of clothing) should bear the images of the children and slaves and the beggars, too broken and disabled to work any longer, who made these clothes.

The anti-diamond and gemstone campaign could prove especially effective, with every jeweler and department store a memorial to the atrocities of Sierra Leone and the western diamond dynasties that fueled them.

Would Apple products look so sleek with the cramped dormitories of its factory workers placed on every iPhone and iPad? Mind you, the tobacco industry is no saint in this regard, but you won’t find images of the children who pick tobacco for R..J. Reynolds in 100+ degree heat on any cigarette packs. Only an American child suffering the atrocity of second-hand smoke.

This campaign of shaming consumers for their purchases will catch on, but not to any of the industries I’ve mentioned. Fast food may not have long before images of morbidly obese women in sweatpants, perhaps missing limbs from diabetes, grace every BigMac, Whopper, and Fry. Soda and sugary drinks, too, but diamonds, petroleum products, factory farms, chocolate, textiles, consumer electronics, these industries will remain safe despite the innumerable atrocities in which they and their consumers are complicit.

Class War

We most abhor the vices of the underclass. We deride and imprison those in their grip, or, in more sympathetic moments, we try to educate them; nothing could be more condescending. Legislators have determined, certainly after thorough research, that people smoke or eat unhealthy foods simply because they do not know any better. If only they knew, the argument runs, they wouldn’t behave so shamefully (See: Classlessly).

These poor decision makers know, but rather than address the systematic problems compelling people to make bad decisions, we condescend to and stigmatize these groups further. Nowhere in the discussion of anti-smoking campaigns and legislations have I heard about the correlation between nicotine use and mental illness, about how many tobacco users are self-medicating undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses with nicotine (which happens to be a miracle drug) because they simply have no other options. Nor do we address, while discussing the dangers of trans-saturated fats, sodium, and high fructose corn syrup that, in many areas, gas stations and McDonald’s provide the only sources of food.

We prefer to lecture the poor on their ignorant decisions (even at the cost of increasing the dangers of such decisions) because we have the privilege of ignoring the many ways in which our decisions contribute to the suffering of the poor, the ways in which wealth and education allow us to make “intelligent” decisions to buy foods and medicines condoned by the ruling class. We forget the ways in which our decisions negatively effect the health and wellbeing of not only ourselves and our children but the health and wellbeing of those across the globe. But, surely, if we knew better, if we understood the ramifications of our terrible decisions, surely we’d behave less shamefully. Surely.