The signs are, unquestionably, disturbing. In full color, they show rotted teeth and tar-covered lungs. They were first introduced by the New York City Department of Health in 2009, and were intended to help New Yorkers quit smoking.
“These warning signs will help persuade smokers to quit and show children why they shouldn’t start to smoke,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley at the time.
But the tobacco companies Philip Morris USA, Lorillard Tobacco Co. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., along with two major retail trade groups and two convenience stores, filed suit in June 2010, saying the signs violated their rights. And on Tuesday, a U.S. Appeals Court in Manhattan rejected the Board of Health resolution that would have required tobacco retailers to display the signs.
Smokers and sellers of tobacco in Manhattan have mixed views on the issue.
“The warning is good because cancer is a problem,” said Harry Patel, a retail clerk who for the past two years has been working in his uncle’s smoke shop, G.S. Smokers Inc. on Beekman Street in Lower Manhattan. “But people like smoking, and no sign will change that.”
He did, however, agree with the city’s position that the posters may discourage first-time smokers from lighting up.
So did Mostafa Hegazy, a hot dog vendor at Broadway and Ann Street and a smoker himself.
“If the kids see it, they won’t smoke, they’ll see smoking is not a good habit,” he said.
When the posters were first introduced, there was some concern that the grotesque depictions of smoking’s bodily damages would scare off customers. The proposal, which was put on hold when the lawsuit was filed, would have required retailers to post the graphic warnings wherever tobacco products were displayed, as well as at the cash register.
But workers in smoke shops said they never noticed a drop in sales.
“It didn’t make a big difference,” said Patel. “Smoking is a habit.”
A worker named Jay at Optimo Cigars in Lower Manhattan near City Hall, agreed.
“The sign made little difference,” he said.
At the NYC Smoke Shop on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street, manager Alex Fasil said he thinks the posters would have been successful in deterring people from smoking.
“You put the picture is better,” he said. “People take it seriously. You see the consequences.”
But will Fasil put a sign up if he doesn’t have to?
“If I put it up I’m going against my customers,” he said.
The city’s health department said the appeals court ruling would likely affect the number of smokers in New York City who quit.
“The city’s warning signs depicted the grisly toll of smoking and provided helpful information about how to quit at a place where smokers were most likely to see it,” the health department said in a statement. “Despite huge strides in combating smoking in New York City, tobacco remains the city’s number one killer and we remain committed to providing smokers with life-saving information and resources to overcome their addiction.”
Perhaps in part because of the city’s attempts to abolish smoking, or at least shame those New Yorkers that do smoke, the opinions from some smokers about the court ruling was negative.
“I’m a smoker, and I should see these things,” said Andrew Teifer, after purchasing a cigar at G.S. Smokers Inc.
But Joe Lenart, smoking a cigarette on his work break, did not see it that way.
“All this stuff is bull-sh**,” he said. “If you don’t want people to smoke, stop making and selling them.”