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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

The graphic and gruesome truth about cigarettes 

Credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

It’s tough to come up with a behavior more foolish than cigarette smoking. Tobacco is the only widely consumed substance in the world with no clear purpose other than killing users and making sure they’re broke and smell rotten.

Other drugs have terrible downsides, too, but they often have positive medical properties when used properly, and they create euphoria. Cigarettes aren’t even an intoxicant, and the stimulative effect they have is usually too slight to even be felt. They just alleviate a craving we never had before we started smoking. How’s that for a selling point: “Try cigarettes! They won’t make you feel good, but after you’ve smoked for a while, and develop an addiction, they will make you feel less bad! Until you find out you’re dying!”

So when Congress passed a law 10 years ago requiring tobacco companies to cover at least 50 percent of each cigarette package with the kind of graphic warnings adopted in other nations to great effect, it made sense. A man with a tracheotomy smoking through his neck hole was one proposed image on labels with phrases like, “Smoking can kill you” and “Cigarettes cause cancer.”

But the tobacco companies sued, claiming the labels were “scare tactics,” and a federal court agreed, citing the First Amendment. Now though, the labels are back, and the Food and Drug Administration says it’s not using scare tactics in mandating them because the 13 warnings planned for the packages are purely factual.

The images are scary — and potentially the right ones to make a difference. Even young men feeling invincible may be moved by a warning that cigarettes can cause impotence, accompanied by a photo of a sad fellow, head in hands, perched alone on a bed. Even a young woman using cigarettes to look cool might be slowed by a picture of a woman with a tumor the size of a kumquat bulging from her otherwise pretty neck.

Of all the addictions I succumbed to, my 25 years of heavy smoking was the silliest and the hardest to quit because relapsing never seemed that scary. With quitting drinking, fear helped keep me straight. I’d think, “I sure would love a drink, but the last time I had one, I ended up in the Bay of Fundy, jailed for felony imitation of a licensed tree surgeon. I’d better stick with coffee.”

But when I was trying to quit smoking, I’d think, “I’d love a smoke. And the last time I bought a pack of cigarettes, nothing happened. I smoked them while I drank a pot of coffee on a crisp autumn day, and it was kinda swell.”

What finally helped me quit smoking was not my fear of the danger, distant and abstract, but my daughter’s fear, which seemed immediate and compelling.

Reducing smoking is one of this nation’s great public-health triumphs, and one of its great challenges. In 1962, 42 percent of American adults smoked. By 2017, just 14 percent did. Smoking-cessation programs have saved some 8 million lives, but smoking-related diseases claim the lives of more than 450,000 Americans each year.

There are two real challenges to cutting smoking rates. The first is stopping people from starting, and these labels — threatening sexual inadequacy, low birth-weight babies and the blackened stubs of toes lost to diabetes — might help even immortal teens see reason. The second challenge is getting people who have smoked for years to stop. That means scaring the smokers and energizing their nagging children. Images of diseased lungs and chests zigzagged with the incision scar of open-heart surgery can help.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.