Lots of people in today’s political climate make accusations that the government is too big and frequently intrudes on people’s lives (see the midterm election). But these accusations are especially prevalent in debates surrounding health regulations on consumer products like tobacco and food. For instance, many have argued that the University was overstepping its boundaries when it went ahead with the campus-wide smoking ban, set to take effect in July 2011. Cities and states that contemplated a soda tax to curb obesity this past spring, such as New Mexico and Baltimore, received similar scrutiny. Every proposal of this nature is accompanied by a debate over the boundaries of government regulation, and these boundaries are being determined on a case-by-case basis.

A new case came under scrutiny on Nov. 10, as the Food and Drug Administration proposed 36 new graphic cigarette labels, nine of which will be required on cigarette packages by October 2012.

Unlike the current warnings that are on cigarette labels, the new labels display disturbing images that are intended to remind consumers of the dangers of smoking. For example, one design has a picture of a man smoking out of a hole in his neck. Additionally, the proposed labels would take up half of the package and would be accompanied with phrases like “cigarettes cause fatal lung disease.”

I’m not worried about government overstepping its bounds in these cases. Under the assumption that a soda tax actually would be effective at reducing obesity, I would support it. But I think it would be particularly difficult in this case for anyone to argue that the government has no right to regulate cigarette labels. Many of the typical arguments against government regulations simply don’t apply in this situation.

To explain why, I want to invoke a philosophy called “libertarian paternalism,” coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, an economics professor and law professor respectively, in their 2008 book “Nudge.” The main premise of this concept is that any program manager — from government officials to business owners — can attempt to influence a consumer’s decisions without restricting that consumer’s options. This is because humans all have natural psychological biases that frequently prevent us from acting in our long-term interests. For instance, a dining hall manager can utilize the information that individuals are more likely to pick the first food item they see. If he seeks to influence consumer health, the manager can arrange the healthiest items in the front of the cafeteria. In this way, he influences consumers to make healthier decisions without restricting the options of pizza and a burger.

The logic behind the smoking labels is similar. People who smoke are likely aware of the health effects of smoking and many want to quit. But when a cigarette is actually accessible, it’s easy for an individual to ignore that information — often because of addiction. The new smoking labels — which are much more difficult to ignore than current warnings — would serve as a reminder at every point in the smoking process. Consumers would see the warnings every time they buy a pack or pull out a cigarette. In a 2001 survey by the Canadian Cancer Society, 44 percent of smokers said that these types of labels, which were introduced in Canada in 2000, “increased their motivation to quit.”

But the labels don’t restrict consumer options. They don’t place increased financial burden on people who smoke like a tax would, and they don’t limit where an individual can smoke, as would a public ban.

Regardless, cigarette companies have objected to the changes on any grounds possible. In this case more than any other, it won’t be very convincing for them to argue that these labels place undue burden on people who smoke.

If you look at the reader comments for any news report about the proposed labels, you will see objections along the lines of, “What’s to stop the government from putting dead body labels on cars and fast food?” To this, I argue that few would consider applying a similar policy to any other product. According to the Center for Disease Control, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide. It’s for that reason that gruesome labels have been instituted for cigarettes, rather than any other product, in 39 different countries.

When it comes to smoking, it’s too easy for individuals to ignore information that would be beneficial in the long term. The new FDA labels seek to counteract such a trend, and they do so without restricting any consumer choices. They may be gruesome, but if they’re effective they could re-energize the fight against smoking in the U.S.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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