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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