Graphic Environmental Warning Labels (Originally Published in Truthout)

What if every time you filled up at the pump, the image of a child displaced by climate change-caused drought confronted you? Would you make an effort to drive less, or at least be more aware of the tragic connectivity and causation inherent to the Anthropocene? Inspired by graphic tobacco warning labels, I explore how visualizing the impacts of our consumptive lives might impact behavior.

History of graphic warning labels

First introduced in 1985, graphic warnings on cigarette labels began to spread in the early 2000s in spite of industry opposition. The Bulletin of the World Health Organization records Canada as the first country to require graphic warning labels in 2001, with many more countries following suit, including:

  • Brazil (2002)
  • Thailand (2005)
  • Australia, which requires a rotation of two sets of labels every 12 months (2006)
  • UK (2008)
  • Taiwan (2009)
Philippines cigarette labels
Cigarette labels in The Philippines (Photo from Aotearoa Independent Media Centre)

Some of the countries with the largest graphic health warnings are Mauritius, Paraguay, Australia, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Finland.

Brazil cigarette labels
Warning labels in Brazil (Photo from the Brazilian Health Ministry)

Substantial evidence demonstrates that graphic warning labels are more likely to be noticed than text-only labels. Graphic labels are also more effective at motivating smokers to quit.

The United States has still not enacted legislation to require cigarette packaging to include graphic warning labels. In 2009, a federal law required the FDA to issue a final ruling on graphic labels by June 22, 2011. With no final ruling yet issued, the American Cancer Society and other medical and advocacy organizations filed suit against the FDA on October 4, 2016.

Graphic labels recontextualized

If graphic warning labels haven proven effective at targeting the disconnect between cigarettes and the health risks they pose, could a similar strategy bridge the gaping divide between other actions and consequences?

Katrina flooding
Natural disaster victims–like those pictured here in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina–will become more numerous as climate change accelerates. How can we draw connections between the agents and victims of climate change? (Photo by Marty Bahamonde/FEMA)

Could visualizing the human health, human rights, and environmental impacts engendered by our everyday actions affect behavior? Rob Nixon calls for the visualization of these issues–in particular, the spectacularization of these issues–in his book Slow Violence. “How can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and star nobody, disasters that are attritional and indifferent to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world?” he asks.

all environmental labels

Read the rest of the story on Truthout

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