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A few weeks ago, I took a pretty angry stand against cancer in all its terrible forms. Not exactly going out on a limb, but I hoped to encourage others to work and contribute toward a cure — a hearty thanks to all who have done so.

A couple of things in recent days have sparked another discussion in my head about how even something so seemingly black and white as the fight against cancer can be politicized, watered down, and manipulated for questionable purposes. An example earlier this year was how two highly successful non-profits working on behalf of women can suddenly lose their way, get into petty litmus test fighting, and undo a long history of cooperation and positive outcomes. The mess between Planned Parenthood and the Susan G. Komen Foundation is complicated, nasty, and ultimately a losing proposition for both organizations. My touchstone on this and all other cancer related situations is to focus on whether the cause of cancer victims is advanced. If it isn’t, the people involved need to look themselves in the mirror and ask what could be more important.

If only politicians and government bureaucrats came with warning labels.

If only politicians and government bureaucrats came with warning labels.

Perhaps the murkiest area is when government over reaches. Packaging Digest reports on  a federal appeals court decision that threw out the FDA’s foray into creating ultra-graphic tobacco warning labels. I wrote about the case in November 2010, troubled by the over the top nature and the government’s conflict of interest in collecting tobacco taxes with one hand while wagging a finger at smokers with the other.

In its drug regulatory role, the FDA is too often intent on throwing up roadblocks against new cancer drugs, even those that have been shown to be effective in clinical trials. In the interest of attaining some sort of near-flawless safety record, the FDA has prevented promising drugs from reaching the market sooner than much later. In such instances, people with especially difficult cancers and their physicians are denied the opportunity to explore new drugs that have helped others. In many cases, such drugs are the last remaining hope. Such decisions should not be left in the hands of bureaucrats.

What really got me thinking about the politics of cancer is a public service advertising campaign launched by the LungCancerLeaders.org. Pat McGee, Vice President of Marketing, for HLP Klearfold brought it to my attention after hearing the radio spot while driving with his daughter. Both of them were struck by the thorny issues it raised.

The "No One Deserves to Die" campaign advocates on behalf of lung cancer victims.

The "No One Deserves to Die" campaign advocates on behalf of lung cancer victims.

Essentially, the non-profit (and several others devoted to helping victims of lung cancer such as NoOneDeservesToDie.org from the Lung Cancer Alliance) noted that it is a forgotten cause without ribbons, walks, and ultimately sympathy. The assumption is that those who contract lung cancer brought on their own trouble by smoking. On an individual basis, that may or may NOT be the case. Plenty of people who contract lung cancer are non-smokers. And plenty more contract lung cancer than most other forms of cancer. The creation of some kind of cosmic pecking order of cancer victims is a terrible image, but yet there it is. Cancer is cancer and when someone has contracted it, playing politics over causes, and the withholding of sympathy and support, are really, really bad ideas.

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This one is wrong on so many levels, I am not sure where to begin. One of the biggest stories of the week is the FDA’s intention to require graphic new warning labels depicting cancer and other bad outcomes on the packaging of cigarettes sold in the United States.
I am all for visceral advertising that packs an emotional wallop to change hearts and minds. A wealth of public service spots carrying this message have been in the public domain for decades. This, however, is not advertising. What this is is a series of well designed, slickly produced package warning labels, each added to a legal product sold to adults who willingly purchase that product. It is hard to believe that any cigarette smoker at this point in human history could possibly be unaware of the harmful effects of smoking.
This is a great example of big government overreach at cross purposes with itself. The FDA’s goal is to get everyone to stop smoking by every means necessary. Is there a more regulated product than tobacco? Tobacco companies are not allowed to use broadcast advertising, because it might seduce new smokers, especially young people. Heavy penalties are in place to discourage retailers from selling tobacco products to minors. Municipal regulations have driven smokers out of public places to the great outdoors to light up (casinos appear to be the exception). Print advertising and packages already carry ominous text-based warning labels. Then, there is the matter of extreme taxes slapped on cigarettes to force smokers to make an economic decision about smoking. The enormous tax revenues reaped by government off a product that the FDA could ban outright suggests enormous hypocrisy and a conflict of interest. Finally, where does Big Brother get off plastering graphic images of disease and death all over commercial packaging. Why stop with cigarettes? How about photos of liposectioned fat featured on the front of Big Mac cartons? Car crash decapitations added to new car stickers? Melanoma posters in tanning salon windows? Many slippery slopes lie ahead.

One of the FDA's tasteful new warning labels.

One of the FDA's tasteful new warning labels.

What bothers me the most about this latest effort, however, is another nail driven in the coffin of civility. Just because the Feds CAN do something doesn’t mean that they SHOULD. Cigarette breath is one thing. This is just in really bad taste.
During college, I went to transfer a car title at the local justice of the peace. In his office was a poster of a smoker whose jaw and lower half of his face were gone from cancer; the poster bore the cheery greeting, “Thank You For Not Smoking.” Once the transaction was over, I left disturbed by what I’d seen, but also alarmed that this man was okay with having this horrible image of disfigurement and impending death staring back at him, eight hours a day, five days a week. Nice treat for his office staff, too.
This new round of warning labels brought back another memory. One Saturday, I was driving through the next town with my elementary age son. Abortion protestors were staging a demonstration and some were standing by the road with incredibly graphic signs featuring images of dead fetuses. Freedom of speech may allow zealots to expose young children to those shocking photographs, but wouldn’t a sense of decency kick in at some point in their protest planning process. A punch in the gut isn’t a winning debate strategy.
At a time when we are looking for ways to reduce big government spending and the growing deficit, I nominate the new cigarette warning labels program to get lopped off by the grim reaper’s axe. How’s that for a graphic image of death?

Update: A preliminary injunction has been granted against the Food and Drug Administration’s new requirement for graphic warning labels. Suit was filed by Lorrilard on constitutional/free speech grounds. Read all about it here in Packaging Digest.

Update: Looks like the Feds came to their senses. I’m sure it was after they read this blog post.

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