Jonathan Ewing, Guest Columnist
Ideology: Independent | Writing from: Washington, DC

By the middle of next year, every legal pack of cigarettes you see will come with a photo of a corpse, an abusive mother, a dying cancer patient or any number of jarring labels required by law.

This landmark action by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a result of President Obama’s Family Smoking Act, passed in 2009. The FDA joins more than 30 other health departments around the world in proposing graphic cigarette warning labels.

Some have called this action too drastic — “patronizing and unnecessary,” as the Denver Post put it — but a quick look at the statistics shows that this is a justifiable measure. Tobacco use kills off more than 400,000 people in the United States every year, and another 50,000 die of exposure to secondhand smoke. The World Health Organization, among others, calls this an epidemic, and so it should: tobacco use kills more people around the world every year than AIDS, war, car accidents, and homicide combined.

One of the FDA's proposed cigarette labels

Predictably, some Libertarians have already rushed to big tobacco’s aid, accusing FDA of an egregious overreach and abuse of power in forcing cigarettes to come with photos of corpses and people smoking out of holes in their necks. After all, if the government inserts itself between the consumer and his cigarettes, what’s next? Background checks for gun purchases? Oh, wait… that saves lives.

One argument is that it’s an all or nothing battle. Either ban cigarettes like we did asbestos, or get the government’s hands off of cigarettes entirely. We could have that conversation, except for the long line of politicians on big tobacco’s payroll. Speaker-to-be Boehner, infamous for his tobacco money handouts on the House floor, has taken over $200,000 from tobacco, paling in comparison to Richard Burr’s nearly-half-a-million-dollar tobacco chest. That kind of money damns public health.

But it’s not only the tobacco companies that are shelling out big bucks in order to finance tobacco use. The American taxpayer foots at least $100 billion annually in tobacco-caused healthcare costs, enough to pay for Obama’s universal healthcare plan. The ambitiously titled “Ending the Tobacco Epidemic” plan by the FDA hopes to significantly reduce that cost by bringing the smoking rate down from 20 to 12 percent by 2020.

Despite the millions spent on tobacco control programs by health departments around the country, CDC statistics show a decade-long stall in the decline of smoking rates. Instead of the government throwing more taxpayer money at programs to tell us, again, that smoking causes cancer, obscenely graphic warning labels point to the FDA’s new willingness to take more aggressive action against the tobacco epidemic, and to do so at less cost to the taxpayer.

Jonathan Ewing works for Action on Smoking Health, an anti-smoking organization. Views expressed are his own. He blogs at Framing TC.