Warning labels on tobacco product packages

There are undeniable and proven health risks associated with the use of tobacco products. It is therefore absolutely correct that tobacco product packages should carry warnings reminding consumers of this fact every time they reach for a pack.

In Europe, warnings have been displayed on tobacco product packages since at least 2001. These warnings are clearly visible with every purchase, when the pack is placed on the table or in the garbage can. It is highly unlikely that after more than 20 years of warning labels in Europe there is still anyone who is unaware of these warnings on tobacco packs.

During the 20 years or more that such warnings have been in place, the size and number of warning labels have increased and pictorial health warnings have been added, making the actual pack design merely a secondary feature.

As the message of the warnings remains the same, regardless of their size and graphic design, the question at this point is which kind of different positions are involved.

There is a legitimate interest on the part of brand owners to highlight their brands in the pack design; similarly, Europe’s close-on 90 million consumers of tobacco products want to be able to easily identify their preferred brand.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate interest on the part of health policymakers to place the warning labels in a clearly visible position. This interest has long been taken into account, as outlined above.

It is also perfectly legitimate for the tobacco control industry to set targets that call for even bigger warning labels, even more shocking images, even more captivating wording. At this point, the question arises as to whether increasing the level of intensity can also increase the level of impact. Already in the case of some of the current pictorial warnings it is difficult to identify in the displayed disfigurements any situation that corresponds to the real everyday world, although this should logically be fairly easy given the 90 million smokers in Europe.

It remains open for discussion whether turning up the intensity - meaning even bigger, even greater disfigurement - does not carry the risk of deadening the awareness of the target groups due to suspicions of the warnings being excessive and exaggerated.

In this case, it is the task of the legislators to weigh things up and find a realistic and balanced solution taking account of the different legitimate interests at stake, with a view to providing consumers with appropriate information.