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CEPEDA: Warnings needed on candy cigarettes

After months of deliberation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unveiled its final lineup of nine cigarette warning graphics, and the winners are doozies.

If you smoke, you'll soon see the campy gore of rotted teeth, a tracheotomy hole with cigarette smoke wafting from it, a sewn-up corpse, a crying woman, diseased lungs, and other such visuals on your pack. The images are required to be placed on all cigarette packs, cartons and ads no later than September 2012 along with a phone number, 800-QUIT-NOW, that will provide information, advice, support and referrals for quitting.

As well-meaning as this effort is, I doubt the images will rouse current smokers who'd have to be living in a cave to not know that their habit is harmful. For years, most of the smokers I've talked to have said they'd like to quit or have tried and failed. Some of them already have smoking-related health problems or close relatives with tobacco-related cancers but haven't been able to stick with the unbearable difficulty of quitting. A line-drawing of a crying baby in an incubator probably isn't going to be a game-changer for them.

The FDA cites numerous international studies that suggest that warning labels are effective at getting smokers to understand the risks they're taking by smoking, and says the new labels might induce as many as 213,000 of the nation's 46 million cigarette smokers to quit in the first year.

Maybe.

I'd look for more success stories in the area of preventing people from taking up a smoking habit to begin with. These label images aren't ironic; they're pretty gruesome and serve as a good counterpoint to constant pop culture references that romanticize the pleasures of a nicotine buzz, the joy of having something to fidget with, and cool accoutrements such as Zippo lighters.

In fact, if the FDA really wants to make an impact on future smokers, it should demand that candy cigarettes and chocolate cigars carry the warnings as well.

I'm not joking.

The Stop-N-Save down the street from my house sells cigarette-shaped white sugar sticks with red tips that come in an exquisite variety of cardboard packs covered with images of cowboys, stallions, ornate crowns and familiar-sounding names such as "Kings" and "Lucky Lights."

There are similar gum cigarettes, too, which taste far better than the sugar ones and must be peeled of their rolling paper before eating. The kids all instinctively put these candies between their index and middle fingers before placing on the lips with a slight squint of the eyes. They would definitely benefit from a dose of gritty realism.

Only time will tell if the number of smokers decreases -- and we'll have to determine whether it's because of ever-higher taxes, the increased restrictions on where smokers can light up, or the graphic warning labels.

While we wait, let's see if fashionable cigarette case sales skyrocket -- and keep our fingers crossed that the target market for such accessories soon dwindles to nothing.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.