A Judge Snuffs Out New York City's Gruesome Antismoking Ads

NYC's Gruesome Anti-Smoking Ads Blocked by Judge
NYC's Gruesome Anti-Smoking Ads Blocked by Judge

New York City has so many cultural identities, it's impossible to distill to it into an epigram, but it only has a few dominant industries. One biggie: advertising. Times Square is advertising's temple -- dazzling in its ornate, even baroque sophistication, while Madison Avenue is the industry's fabled factory floor. But many of the nitty-gritty ads in the city are the simple placards in high-visibility places: Bus stops, taxi roofs, convenience stores and the like.

These low-budget, high-visibility ads use the same tried-and-true techniques as their upscale brethren to get their messages across: sex, glamor, celebrity and vibrant color. But a new city regulation, set to take effect Jan. 1, was set to insert a seam of dark, nasty imagery into all that glitter: A brain damaged by stroke. A diseased lung. A decayed mouth.

No, I'm not describing a campaign for the newest Stephen King horror tale, but rather images of the damage done to a body by smoking, part of a city-mandated plan designed to scare smokers straight and turn off potential puffers before they start. But fear not, nicotine addicts and innocent bystanders, U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff has protected your eyes from those graphic pictures.

Appeals Are Likely

Rakoff isn't sympathetic to the cigarette companies, calling them the "merchants of morbidity." But he found that the New York City health regulation that required the antismoking images to be displayed wherever tobacco products were sold conflicted with a 1965 law that gives the federal government control over tobacco ads. Rakoff didn't rule on the cigarette retailers' and manufacturers' First Amendment claims. The city will appeal, so perhaps, like a horror film monster, the images will rise again.

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I hope so. Gruesome images make for effective stop-smoking ads, according to researchers, while badly designed antismoking campaigns perversely seem to increase smoking. I'm OK with cigarettes being legal -- as inconsistent as that is with the rest of the government's antidrug policies -- but persuading smokers to quit and inspiring young people not to start would save many lives, and even more tax dollars. It would also cost cigarette companies, big time, which is perhaps why effective campaigns are so heavily targeted by the tobacco industry.

In any case, New York City consumers can enter 2011 knowing they won't be confronted by the ugly consequences of smoking every time they shop at stores that sell cigarettes. In today's already troubled times, perhaps that's a New Year's gift some weary eyes will appreciate.