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Ethical dilemmas behind the FDA’s gruesome cigarette warnings

June 22, 2011

new cigarette ad campaignThe Food and Drug Administration will soon require cigarette packs and advertisements to carry grisly images such as scarred cancer victims, autopsy photos and a smoking mother's weakened infant in an incubator. These and other graphic images will be standard by fall 2012 as the FDA hopes to shock existing smokers into quitting as well as scare off potential new smokers.

Will it work? The FDA is predicting more than 200,000 smokers will quit in the first year of the program. But the attempt to scare Americans into behavior modification raises a host of legal and philosophical questions, says Professor Carrie La Ferle of the Temerlin Advertising Institute at Southern Methodist University, an expert in how culture impacts advertising and consumer behavior.

“From a health perspective, if there’s nothing good about cigarettes, and second hand smoke is bad for you, then we really should ban the product as opposed to the speech,” La Ferle said. “But if you ban the product, then you have 20 percent of the U.S. adult population engaging in criminal behavior, and much is lost in tax revenue and jobs.”

Carie La Ferle
Prof. Carrie La Ferle
“Technically, the government can limit speech worthy of protection if they have a compelling reason,” La Ferle said.  “But philosophically, do we want to be a country that attempts to control behavior by controlling the speech for it?”

Canada has posted similarly graphic health warnings on cigarette packages since 2000, La Ferle noted.

“Canada is a universal healthcare country,” La Ferle said.  “In that situation, you have a lot of people concerned about smoking.  As we move toward universal healthcare in the United States, the 80 percent of the country that doesn’t smoke potentially pays for someone who does smoke and gets lung cancer.  This is where you get back to the compelling reasoning from the government’s standpoint.”

La Ferle teaches courses in advertising ethics. She can be reached at 214-690-7929 or .

Full bio for La Ferle available at

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