Regulating Cool

The [US FDA] unveiled a plan designed … to shock customers with images of tobacco’s impact: sick smokers exhaling through a tracheotomy hole, struggling for breath in an oxygen mask and lying dead on a table with a long chest scar. Starting next year, cigarette cartons, packs and advertising will feature these and six other graphic warnings, replacing the discreet admonitions that cigarette manufacturers have been required to offer since 1966. …

Some of the images, particularly the warning depicting a diseased mouth, are specifically aimed at dispelling the notion for teens that smoking is cool. “We want kids to understand smoking is gross, not cool, and there’s really nothing pretty about having mouth cancer or, you know, making your baby sick if you smoke,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. “So some of these are very driven to dispelling the notion that somehow this is cool, and makes you cool.” (more)

Pause to consider the logic here. We decide it is not a good idea to let the government ban this product, or to require a doctor’s prescription to consume it. We think everyone should be allowed to consume it if they choose. But, we also decide it is a good idea to let government to decide if this product can seem “cool.” In general, the idea must be that if people see the wrong things as cool, the government can require appearance changes, changes the government guesses will make those overly-cool things seem less cool.

For example, if too many kids see not going to college as cool, well then maybe only college students and graduates should be allowed to wear certain sorts of cool clothing. Or if too many think going to the beach is cool, resulting in too much skin cancer, we could broadcast uncool music at the beach.

The basic question is when should the government ban an activity versus merely discouraging it, and what sort of discouragements it should wield. Discouraging activity via reducing its appearance of “cool” seems to me especially hard for distant slow federal regulators to manage — what things seem “cool” often varies in quite subtle ways over short times and between subcultures. Is there any argument that this sort of discouragement is especially useful, to compensate for such added difficulty?

Actually, I see a fundamental contradiction in the idea of government regulating “cool.” While we have many social processes which tell us about what others might approve or disapprove, the “cool” process seems inherently decentralized, and not to be mediated by authorities. We the masses are supposed to each decide what we think is “cool,” and we are not supposed to accept declarations by teachers, employers, etc. on the subject. Whatever authorities recommend as a good idea, it can only accidentally be “cool.”

“Cool” just doesn’t seem the sort of thing government can actually regulate.

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  • maybe government should stop taxing cigarettes–the more they cost the more there’s a separating equilibrium where only rich people can smoke, and rich people are usually cool. young people who smoke would be particulatly high status since young are usually poor.

    plus, it’s cool ot be anti-authority, so going against government warnings is cool.

    • Wonks Anonymous

      Income is negatively correlated with smoking in the U.S currently.

      • yikes, how did i forget that. thanks for that.

  • matt matson

    In general, there is a market failure in information related to the consumption of goods. Many actors have incentives to promote products. Rarely are there market incentives to spread information discouraging consumption (discouraging the use of a competitor’s product, yes; consumption of products, no).

    Perhaps government is not good at the task of discouraging smoking, but one could envision private contracts in particular areas with payouts tied to changes in expected consumption.

  • granite26

    I want to see this tied to the new laws on informed abortion, or whatever they’re calling it. I expect this is another situation where the exact same tactic is judged based on the political goals it’s being used for.

  • acertainshadeofgreen

    And…. this may backfire. It is possible that smoking is cool because it is dangerous. Similar to binge drinking- it is cool to be able to drink a lot, because you have to be “tough” to sustain the bodily harm/crappy emotions which accompany heavy drinking. Smoking (and drinking) may function something like a peacock’s tail.

  • Uncool = “your relevant social group disapproves.”

    A government can attempt to provide “information” about this, but it can never hope to overwhelm the quality of information about the values of the relevant social group that are provided directly to people by their social groups.

    Marriage promotion and abstinence-only sex ed are particularly laughable examples of this.

  • “Cool” just doesn’t seem the sort of thing government can actually regulate.

    Are you arguing that these new regulations will not affect smoking behavior much? My boring guess is that a randomized experiment would find a non-trivial, but not enormous decline due to the new regs. There is research (maybe not randomized) from other countries, but I’m too lazy to look for it right now.

    • I’m also a little unsure about whether Robin is worried about the empirical question “Is the government able to effectively influence cool?” or the normative question “should the government influence cool, as opposed to outright bans or no action?” Obviously the former influences the latter, but the post seems unclear.

      (I think the word “influence” better captures what the government is doing here, not “regulate”. They aren’t telling any citizens what they have to think is cool, they’re just introducing some imagery into the public consciousness, financed by the industry.)

    • I think you can discourage people from buying a product by making its product packaging ugly. I just don’t think this effect has much to do with being cool.

  • I was surprised to see you putting the word “cool” in quotes. I’ve never known you to shy away from using a low-status word when it is the most accurate one for describing what you are talking about.

  • Will Cigarette cases ( make a comeback?

    • That’s my assumption, though in this more hurried era, I think there will mostly be cases that fit over the cigarette pack rather than cases that one has to load the cigarettes into.

      There will be simple, elegant cases, silly cases, and cases with skulls on them.

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to see more smoking. It trains the lungs to deal with stress and makes the population more resistant to cancer in the long run due to increased selection pressures.

    • But very very few die from smoking related illness before the child bearing years are over.

      • Anonymous

        I wasn’t being serious, Floccina.

  • Douglas Knight

    It appears to me that US government has successfully shifted “cool” a number of times, most particularly with drunk driving and seatbelts. These are the most successful propaganda I know of, better than any commercial advertisements. Canada has had cigarette packs somewhat like this for years and it should be easy to predict the effect on smoking from that example, though the effect on “cool” is harder to measure.

    • Notthere

      Those aren’t necessarily the best comparisons. From what I gather, anti drunk driving and pro seatbelt campaigns that publicized the information were successful because most people were unaware of the consequences. Anti smoking campaigns, however, have already effectively informed people of the consequences of tobacco use. At this point, most people who smoke know what it can do and still do. I don’t think that this campaign will be successful. I know it won’t deter me.

      • Sean

        I don’t think you should be so quick to dismiss the effect of graphic mouth cancer pictures on young people (still the best long-term target audience for the tobacco companies), who tend to spend a significant chunk of their time and energy on trying to get laid. I personally found the “Faces of Meth” campaign effective, and the commercial with the guy singing through his throat also gave me pause.

        As others have noted, similar labels have been in use for years in other countries. I know smoking rates have gone down in Europe, so what portion of that is due to the labels? I have no idea, but I doubt the answer is “zero.”

        I wonder what effect Hollywood’s general ban on casual cigarette smoking has had on smoking rates. Seeing Cary Grant, Bing Crosby and Katherine Hepburn smoke like chimneys on the big screen likely made smoking seem de rigeur back in the day, and it kind of was.

  • Shane

    Since the government is (or soon will be) in the health care business, it behooves the government to curb smoking. Outright prohibition is politically untenable, but a lot of people will go along with this.

    Note that obesity and its comorbidities are more costly than smoking at this point, but also that it’s already uncool to be obese. It might be a test of your thesis to see what they do in that area (see e.g. Michelle Obama’s initiatives).

    • Nuke Washington from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

      Don’t worry, they’re working on it.

      NB: In Japan they actually go to peoples homes and weight and measure them and check them for overall “good” health. They use the excuse “we’re paying for it so suck it up.” I don’t know what, if any, the sanctions are for failing the tests.

      Anyway, it’s coming to America. You can bet on it.

      • Sean

        “You can bet on it.”

        Or maybe we’ll get a more British-style solution: incentivize the doctors to improve their patients’ health. (Currently, British doctors get bonuses when their patients quit smoking, lose weight, show improvement in blood pressure, and other indicators of better health.)

  • Amanda

    The main problem I see is that this plan could and probably will backfire. First, the kind of kids who would be most likely to be swayed by these images have already been swayed by the constant anti-smoking propaganda that is hammered into most children starting in kindergarten. They probably were never considering picking up a pack of cigarettes anyways.
    Secondly, these images could, in fact, become cool. This could become a “got to collect them all” kind of situation, where certain subgroups of teens decide its cool to be able to show off that they smoke so much they were able to collect all 9 images.
    Finally, these images are on the pack of cigarettes, which, depending on where you are in the US, would only be visible after purchase. A teen who views that image after purchase could decide to smoke more in an effort to rebel against what “the man” is telling him to do.

  • Unnamed

    Cigarettes are banned, for people under 18. And I would guess that the anti-coolness campaign is mostly directed at people under 18.

  • Sigivald

    Worked so well in Canada when they did that, right?

    (By which I mean, sarcastically, that it doesn’t seem to have stopped anyone at all.)

    (Also, why is it telling me I’m submitting comments too quickly? On the first one in ages?)

  • richard silliker


    Definition anyone?

    Seems to me to be a good place to start.

  • We the masses are supposed to each decide what we think is “cool,” and we are not supposed to accept declarations by teachers, employers, etc. on the subject. Whatever authorities recommend as a good idea, it can only accidentally be “cool.”

    If you don’t believe that centralized authorities can influence what is perceived as cool, it would probably be worth reading up on the psychology of advertising. Whether they *should* or not is a different question.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that federal agencies are set up with the kind of resources to really be effective in that regard.

  • For some goods, like cigarettes, heavy regulation, shunning or outright banning has just the opposite effect. By increasing the transaction costs of consumption, it makes continued use more cool, by reducing the number of consumers. Thus consumption becomes at a minimum a signalling device and possibly even a status symbol depending on cultural preferences.

    This article by Kevin Munger expands upon that idea, arguing that sacrifice is a key component of cool. (Warning: explicit language, but for a paper about cool it has just the right amount.)

    • AspiringRationalist

      If it makes them seem cooler by reducing the number of people who consume them, mission accomplished.

  • Buck Farmer

    Wasn’t a similar campaign of advertisements tried in New York City? I remember seeing them on the subway.

    As I recall, they were more successful than previous campaigns which may imply people didn’t realize how repulsive the consequences of smoking can be.

    In 2007:

    Though it doesn’t say whether these ads were effective, only that there was high demand for them from the public.

  • Corporations have clearly been extremely effective in manipulating cool. I believe your premise that cool is entirely decentralised is completely false. Ever seen MTV? What about Bernays and public relations? Marketing… astro-turfing. If marketing had no such power to influence what is cool – it would be very unlikely corporations would think that the massive amounts invested in marketing would be worth it.

    But if corporations can do it – I don’t see why Governments can’t. And if we have some intuitions toward preventing corporations from manipulating cool – then who else could do that but the government?

    I try to be as anti-government as I can. But one role for them that I do accept is as a counter-weight against corporations that would infect the heart of human intimacy with their marketing drivel.

  • Sean

    Here’s the conclusion of one study, from 2007:

    Large, comprehensive warnings on cigarette packages are more likely to be noticed and rated as effective by smokers. Changes in health warnings are also associated with increased effectiveness. Health warnings on U.S. packages, which were last updated in 1984, were associated with the least effectiveness.

    Lots more here:

    That says nothing about whether it’s less cool to smoke, but smoking rates have gone down in recent years, and there are studies showing that graphic images are particularly effective in deterring new young smokers from starting (the demographic most likely to start because it’s cool). Those two facts together make an argument, at least, for the effectivveness of such labels in “uncooling” tobacco smoking.

    • The solution is to put images and messages on the cigarettes themselves.

      A cost scale that shows the cost of what has been burned. Messages like; “I am an idiot”. “Smoking gives me limp dick”. “I don’t have the will power to quit”. “I believed Big Tobacco and now I am addicted”. “I don’t care if you breathe my smoke”. “I am a gullible idiot”. “Helping save Medicare by dying young”. “My breath stinks like an incinerator”. “I am putting toxic crap into my mouth”. “You won’t want to kiss the lips sucking this.”

      Smokers will read them so as to try to orient them so people around them can’t see what they say. If the message is printed on the cigarette, then either the smoker doesn’t smoke that cigarette, or smokes it only in private.

  • Michael Wengler

    Can the gov’t regulate cool? First of all, yes, and second of all, it doesn’t matter in this case.

    We baby boomers grew up in a time which was the exception from the rule: military did not seem cool to many of us who wore long hair, listened to the beatles, smoked marijuana, and looked forward to LSD and available sex. But now, and before Vietnam, the military was cool in the sense of being looked up to by broad swaths of society.

    Did the government do that? What is cooler than a marine in dress blues with his ceremonial sword and white cap? Perhaps a marine driving a helicopter or a jet. On libertarian or overly reductionist grounds, the dress uniforms serve no purpose, nor do the ceremonial swords. Nor do goose stepping, or slow walking guards at the (also useless) tomb of the unknown soldier, nor do imperturbable buckingham palace Beefeaters, nor do Western royalty for that matter.

    But these are all cool and very effectively. And they are government efforts.

    Part of the reductionist error of much modern theory is that Government is somehow completely different from every other human social institution. Of course it isn’t, and the most successfull government (in terms of income, crime rates, number of people “peacefully” governed, lifespans, etc) are also quite successful and making themselves and their institutions cool. The regalia of classical rome and Nazi Germany were not coincidentally similar, but they are goregeous digging right in to most Western souls. We reject the Nazis not because of their regalia, but in effortful spite of it.

    So government is at least as good at cool as any other successful institution.

    As to “who cares,” the point I think is utilitarian. To do more good than harm, to get the biggest bang for the buck. If a picture of a cancerous mouth on a carton of cigarettes deters more smokers than a rise in price of cartons equal to what it cost to add that mouth cancer picture, then yay, lets do it. The rate-limiting step at making tobacco unattractive I think would be when a significant black market develops, and by significant I mean that the costs to society in violence and other decay of that black market exceed the netted benefits of lowering smoking rates.

    • Sean

      Very well put! I hadn’t thought of nationalism in the context off coolness, but of course you’re correct. Ginning up the masses for some old-fashioned blind allegiance is one of government’s proven abilities (and Madison Ave. isn’t too far behind).

  • I think that it is better than high taxes, which we already have, because I think that it will not suck ambitious young men into the black market.

  • BTW the only harm that I see done here is to those who really enjoy smoking and are OK with the risks and to those how have to see the repulsive pictures incidentally.

  • If they really want to show that cigarettes are “uncool” to the relevant people they’re trying to convince, they could take a cue from The Onion and promote the message that homosexuals are over-represented as smokers.

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  • Mike

    Iceland’s government forced a distiller to put minimalist black labels on their schnapps…so it picked up the nickname “Black Death” and made a cameo in a Tarantino movie.

    Vans sells “prison sneakers” with velcro instead of laces.

  • “Cool” just doesn’t seem the sort of thing government can actually regulate.

    Of course they can and have. The D.A.R.E. program convinced many in my generation that drugs were cool. I’m sure images of grotesque death will instill a similar intrigue.

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