Public Health Lesson: What Do Soda and Cigarettes Have in Common?

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: In order to fully tackle our debate feature this month, it's important that students take a look at a similar public health issue from our past: cigarette warning labels. That's why Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--created our Surgeon General's Warning handout to help teens research and analyze warning labels from around the world, so they can apply that knowledge to our debate, Should Soda Have a Warning Label?


Do warning labels encourage healthy behaviors, or are they a waste of time? Our debate this month (click the image below to read it!) tackles this controversial idea. It's an interesting topic, and one I have thought about and discussed quite a bit with my students over the years.



FDA warning labels have a long and interesting past in the United States. For years, anti-tobacco groups have advocated for a stronger warning label, rather than the simple "Surgeon General's Warning" placed on the side of American cigarette packs.


Other countries have gone with different approaches, from putting graphic pictures of the side effects on the package to limiting branding by forcing companies to use only white packaging and black text.


In 2011, inspired by the success other countries were having in smoking cessation, the FDA came out with a series of possible photos to add to their mandated warning labels. They released the 27 possible images for the American public to view and vote on. My students and I were excited about the new mandate and thought it was great that they wanted to get the public involved.


I printed up the 27 possible warning label pictures, which ranged from very graphic photos to subtler graphic designs. The kids decided which ones they thought would be the most effective--interestingly enough, there were many different favorites in the class.


After the deadline passed for public voting, my students were eager to hear the results. Which labels would end up on the cigarette packs?


To their palpable disappointment, none of them would.


These labels, like so many other anti-tobacco regulations proposed by the FDA, got held up in court. The powerful and seemingly unscrupulous lawyers from Big Tobacco had found a loophole and got the labels shot down.


My students, seventh graders at the time, were disappointed and confused. How could these lawyers and government officials not want what was best for the health of everyone else? It was an eye-opening moment for them, and it stirred up a sense of frustration leading to a drive for advocacy that I hadn't seen in middle school students before.


The rest of the semester, these students were driven by a passion to "stick it to the bad guy" that I don't think I'll be able to replicate again. However, I have come close by letting subsequent students dig up research on the fight between Big Tobacco and governments around the world.


That's why looking at tobacco labels is a natural extension to the soda warning label debate. Do these warning labels actually work? And if so, what keeps shutting them down?


In the course of this research, my students have found some things that have gotten them really fired up over the years. Here are a few quotes:


  • "Big tobacco actually tried to sue the country of Venezuela when they wanted to put warning labels on cigarettes?!"


  • "Wait... the Chinese government owns all of the country's cigarette brands? That might explain these tiny little warning labels."


  • "Oh dude, gross! Check out what they're doing in Thailand and the UK." (There are some pretty graphic images on the packaging!)


The fight between corporate interest and public health is a constant in our lives, whether it be with Big Tobacco or Big Soda. The sooner we teach our kids to look at this fight with a critical eye, the more likely they are to make choices that are best for their health, whether or not there's a label there to warn them.


To try this activity with your students, download this PDF:



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