June 27th, 2011
Lung cancer victim's deathbed image sends potent message
Los Angeles Times
For American smokers, her portrait is a glimpse of a future frightening to ponder and, for U.S. health officials, perhaps too powerful to foist on the public: an unsparing photograph of a person scarcely recognizable as a woman, her body wasted by cancer, her hair gone, her blue eyes fixed in a thousand-mile stare.
She was Barb Tarbox, and she died on May 18, 2003, of lung cancer at the age of 42. From October 2002, two months after she was diagnosed, to the moment of her death, the Edmonton, Canada, homemaker set about making her ordeal a lesson to others about the dangers of smoking.
In her final months, she maintained a punishing schedule of public speeches to schoolchildren and teen groups and allowed a newspaper to chronicle her slide toward death.
The photograph, taken five days before Tarbox died, was one of 36 images the Food and Drug Administration considered in the run-up to last week’s unveiling of nine graphic messages that must be on the cover of every cigarette pack sold in the United States starting in the fall of 2012.
The fine print of the FDA’s final ruling notes that, among the images considered, the photograph that regulators blandly dubbed “deathly ill woman” was among the most widely recalled by adults and high school students in tests. But it was not among the nine that made the cut.
Some scientists who study how public health messages work — and don’t work — to make people change their behavior were disappointed by the FDA’s decision. Others professed relief. Both camps, however, agreed that such emotionally laden images will be a powerful weapon going forward in moving smokers to give up the habit and swaying others not to start.