Bloomberg View

Graphic images of diseased lungs, rotting teeth and people smoking through tracheotomy holes aren’t the best way to sell cigarettes. Which is exactly why they feature so prominently on cigarette packs in dozens of countries – and should in the U.S., as well.

More than seven years ago, Congress mandated such labels, covering at least half of the fronts and backs of packs. But the Food and Drug Administration has been dragging its feet on carrying out the law, and its delay deprives the U.S. of a proven weapon against a deadly public health enemy. Some 17 percent of Americans still smoke, and almost half a million die each year as a result.

Pictorial labels could save more than 652,000 lives in the U.S. over the next 50 years, and prevent 47,000 pre-term births, a new study suggests. And this is only the latest research to demonstrate the labels’ power. Experience has shown that explicit and direct anti-tobacco messages cause smokers to quit, or at least think about quitting.

Images tend to work best when paired with written warnings, such as “Cigarettes are addictive,” “Cigarettes cause strokes and heart disease” and “Cigarettes can kill you.” The 2009 Tobacco Control Act requires that one of these or six other statements also be found on all cigarette packs sold in the U.S. These statements are more blunt than the familiar surgeon general’s warnings now tucked away on the sides of packs (”Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health”). But none has yet been used.