Reason Foundation

Reason Foundation

Nanny State Propaganda

How long before the government places graphic warning labels on junk food?

A. Barton Hinkle
June 29, 2011

Don’t get too used to those graphic new cigarette warnings Washington regulators unveiled last week. They’re going to disappear one way or the other.

The courts might throw them out on First Amendment grounds. That seems unlikely. But if the judicial branch doesn’t get rid of them, the executive branch will. Not because it decided they were too repulsive. No, federal authorities plan to update the warning labels to keep the shock value fresh.

"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.

Although the placement of graphic warning labels on commercial products is novel in the U.S., government’s use of the gross-out is nothing new. Wartime propaganda posters of an earlier age routinely depicted the enemy as monstrous beasts to be slain or subhuman bugs to be exterminated.

Of course, no one backing the new warning labels would call them propaganda. Rather, the FDA’s Lawrence Deyton says, "We are trying to communicate accurate, truthful information about the health impact of smoking, to allow consumers to be informed."

That is a lie. 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 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.

It’s the kind of cheap trick you could play with just about anything. Take exercise. Sporting-equipment companies glamorize it just as cigarette companies glamorize smoking, with beautiful idols looking too cool for school as they engage in the activity. But you could de-glamorize exercise in a hurry by forcing people to view pictures of dislocated shoulders, torn ligaments, and genitals covered in raging cases of jock itch.

Since the gross-out is cross-functional, it’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."

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, obesity costs the U.S. about $150 billion. Ergo, Sibelius says the government has an interest in food because "it has a lot to do with underlying health costs and [the] overall health of our nation. . . . The work around obesity and healthier, more nutritious eating" will be "an ongoing focus."

Do tell. Already the federal government has organized an Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children in "an effort to combat childhood obesity – the most serious health crisis facing today’s youth."

The working group—comprising the FTC, the CDC, the FDA, and the Agriculture Department—already has proposed that food companies either (a) change their child-centered products to make them healthier or (b) lose the right to advertise them. The proposal is ostensibly voluntary. But then so is paying the Mafia protection money not to burn down your store.

In brief, the arc of food regulation seems to be following the arc of tobacco regulation: "voluntary" measures imposed "for the sake of the children" at first—followed by less voluntary, more comprehensive regulation undertaken for the sake of the common good, defined in both public-health terms and public-finance terms. What’s more, the same assumption holds in both cases: The government should direct personal behavior that has any effect on other people. Since any behavior can be said to affect somebody else in some way, this is a recipe for a government of infinite scope.

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.

The logic of Washington’s new cigarette warning labels holds that government should frighten people away from consumer goods that impose social costs. If we apply that consistently, then there is no reason federal regulators should not adorn bags of potato chips with garish photos of morbidly obese corpses, cutaways of clogged ateries, or glistening mounds of fatty tissue hacked out of cadavers.

If that doesn’t slim America down enough, then perhaps Washington also will make everybody exercise for an hour a day. The idea sounds laughably implausible now. So what? As Secretary Sibelius says: "What may seem quite shocking at the beginning, people get used to quite quickly."

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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