"We'll begin ... studies to make sure that we are keeping people sensitized," says Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius. "What may seem quite shocking at the beginning, people get used to quite quickly." So if people build up a tolerance for the repulsive, the FDA will amp the dial up to grotesque....
The old warnings — informing buyers that cigarettes cause cancer, and so forth — conveyed information. The new labels are designed to provoke a reaction in that lizard part of your brain that thoughts never reach. A warning on a ladder that reads, "Caution: Improper use could lead to serious injury from falling" conveys information. A graphic photo of a compound tibia fracture conveys only sentiment.Only sentiment... I disagree. Vividly pictured information is still information, even if it offends your taste. Years ago, if I remember correctly, the radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon argued that free speech rights shouldn't cover pornography, because it didn't convey any ideas. It was a sensation... designed to provoke a reaction in that lizard part of your brain that thoughts never reach. Those are Hinkle's words, not MacKinnon's. I don't think she said "lizard part of your brain"... though she might well have said "lizard part."
[INSERTION: "40 years ago: The Lizard King breaks on through to the other side." Did you forget to remember Jim Morrison 3 days ago?]
But, of course, the government doesn't need free speech protection to say what it wants to say to us. It's the government. The question is only whether it can require a private business to carry its message (or its delivery of sensation straight to that lizard part of your brain that thoughts never reach). The messages that already appear on cigarette packs give you the short answer: It can. The better question is: Do we want our government reaching past our intellect, into our deepest instincts, injecting its vision of how we ought to behave?
Well, of course, government actors are always trying to manipulate us on an emotional level in the hope that we'll vote for them or tolerate a war or a tax and so forth. I think the key is to become conscious and critical of those manipulations (and every day, I work at that, in public writing, to model and encourage awareness and resistance). Perhaps an even better question than whether we want the government to manipulate us emotionally is: Do we want the government to manipulate us emotionally with respect to the decisions we make about what to do with our bodies?
Phrased at that level of generality, the photos of cancerous lungs on cigarette packs (trying to get us not to smoke) are like the photos of aborted fetuses (trying to get us not to have abortions). Except we haven't seen the government go graphic with an anti-abortion message, and it's not as easy to think of a commercial product to stick the message on. Something for women. Tampons?
Hinkle's mind drifts to food:
[I]t's reasonable to ask when the federal government will start showing us disgusting pictures on packages of food, in which Washington also takes a keen interest. Indeed, someone asked Sibelius that very question during a press conference about the cigarette labels. Her response was evasive. Food labels are voluntary, she said. And tobacco is unique because smoking is "the No. 1 cause of preventable death."Hence the question about a corpse on a can of Pringles.
It won't be No. 1 forever. Obesity is gaining ground fast. Sibelius says smoking imposes "$200 billion a year in health costs." According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity costs the U.S. about $150 billion....
Two days after Washington unveiled its new warning labels for cigarette packages, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study reporting that our food choices influence our weight more than exercise does. And potato chips pack on the pounds faster than any other food, including candy and desserts.
ADDED: Want to see a corpse in a can of Pringles?