Get Real

The first study showing links between smoking and lung cancer was published in 1954 and it took 12 more years and tens of millions of dollars in litigation costs, before the first warnings, vague as they were, were finally required on cigarette packs in response to congressional legislation.

Between 1954 and 1966, millions who died of lung cancer from smoking might have lived and others may never have picked up the habit if there were tougher, more honest warnings.

The government and industry dragged their collective feet in failing to fulfill their duty to protect the health of Americans regarding smoking and they are doing it again in the campaign against COVID-19. The president has been one of the loudest voices in the effort to downplay the virus by ranting about how he was cured and how facemasks are for the weak while governors and members of Congress and big business continue to issue mixed warnings to the American public.

The government hardly took an initial strong position on the problems of cigarette smoking.

The first required cigarette warnings weren’t lukewarm, they were downright worthless milquetoast. They read, “Caution — cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.” Boy oh boy is that definitive? It’s like saying getting bitten by a cobra may be hazardous to your health or jumping off the George Washington Bridge may be hazardous to your health.

What were those hazards? Maybe it meant your fingers would turn yellow from the nicotine, maybe it meant that you probably would never run a sub-four minute mile if you smoked. But it did say “maybe” so maybe you would probably experience no health problems. Except that was a lie unless you consider that the deaths of millions and millions from lung cancer is a mere “hazard to your health” that you “may” get.

In 1999, Philip Morris USA took a giant step in the name of vagueness when it added the statement “Smoking is Addictive” to its packages.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 required color graphics with supplemental text that depicts the negative consequences of smoking to cover 50 percent of the front and rear of each pack. Of course, the tobacco companies sued and in April 2013 the Supreme Court allowed the new labels to stand. Doesn’t matter really, because this country still has the least restrictive labeling requirements in the world.

The labels now read “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING Smoking causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema and May Complicate Pregnancy.” Sadly, the labels don’t stand out because they are printed in small typeface that closely resemble the rest of the package.

In past years, the mandated, anti-smoking advertisements have gotten much more graphic, as with the one of a woman who can barely speak through a hole in her throat, as she frequently to gasp for air.

Another has a woman urging people to “record you voice for loved ones while you still can” and there’s one of a man who has lost both legs to cancer-related illnesses and the warning “allow extra time to put on your legs.”

And there are before and after photos of Terrie. She was a pretty brunette woman before developing cancer and by the time she was 51, she looked like a skeleton, having lost most teeth and hair and breathed through a hole in her throat.

And now we are faced a pandemic that has killed 285 million people and infected 14.8 million, with a new daily death rate of about the same number who were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

We need an immediate and ongoing public service campaign showing the desperate reality of COVID-19 to counter the widespread belief that the virus is no worse than the flu, that relatively few people are dying and that wearing masks and keeping social distances are not that necessary.

People hear the word ventilator and too many think of something benign and painless but they need to see the reality of a person connected to a hospital ventilator who has to be sedated while his body battles back against the machine to stop it from forcing oxygen into his lungs.

They need to see the intensive care unit where an immobile, formerly healthy 55-year-old man has had tubes inserted into his groin, inhaling 100 percent oxygen through a mask and is in terror over his condition.

The campaign to stall the virus until a vaccine is developed is being fueled by widespread misunderstanding of the potential long term effects and the lengthy and painful recovery time from COVID-19.

Factual, vivid ads about the horrors of cigarette smoking stopped many people from smoking. The same could be done with a public service ad campaign about COVID-19.


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