Pay no attention to the man behind the label

Ever since the U.S. surgeon general warned in the early ’60s that cigarettes cause lung cancer, the tobacco industry has waged a fierce battle to water down warning labels the government mandated on the side of cigarette packages.

As a result of this battle, it took nearly 40 years for the wording on these labels to morph from a gentle warning that smoking coffin nails ”may lead to” cancer, heart disease and an assortment of other deadly ailments to more direct declarations that cigarettes will, in fact, kill you.

Today, the battleground over warning labels is focused on nutrition and environmental stewardship. The industries at the center of these battles appear to have hit upon a new strategy to avoid getting tagged with scarlet letters from the government—they are creating their own labeling systems.

Pick up a box of Froot Loops at your local supermarket this week. Your eyes immediately will be drawn to the top of the box and a handsome new ”Smart Choices” label, created by the nation’s largest food manufacturers and ”designed to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices.”

The food manufacturers are hoping you won’t be smart enough to turn the box on its side and read the government’s official Nutrition Facts label, which will inform you that the breakfast of choice among five-year-olds is loaded with enough sugar to fuel an army of diabetics.

Now comes news that a purportedly non-profit group backed by the paper and timber industries appears to have the upper hand in wresting the certification of ”green” wood products from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which for years has been the established judge of whether wood or paper products deserve to be labeled environmentally friendly.

According to reports, an alternative label from the industry-backed Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is close to gaining acceptance from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which rates buildings as environmentally acceptable under its LEED certification system. This would permit wood products carrying the SFI label to be used in green buildings without jeopardizing LEED certification of the building.

Public-interest lawyers for Forest Ethics, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting forests, have filed administrative complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Internal Revenue Service challenging the credibility of the SFI label and SFI’s nonprofit status. However, an FTC ruling on the complaint may not come before USGBC polls its membership on whether to accept the SFI certification.

LEED officials reportedly are leaning towards accepting the SFI label because the SFI program certifies more forest acreage than FSC, which was formed in 1993 by international environmental groups (FSC includes forest industry representatives on its board). USGBC president Rick Fedrizzi was quoted in a newspaper report suggesting that inclusion of SFI in the labeling process would help convince major players ”to do better in forest management.”

For some reason, this festival of dueling labels reminds us of our favorite scene in one of Woody Allen’s early comedies.

In his film Sleeper, Woody goes into the hospital for a minor medical procedure and wakes up in the future, a la Rip Van Winkle (he finds himself wrapped in a BirdsEye cooking bag when he wakes up).

When he is served his first meal in the future, Woody is handed a tray carrying a fatty steak covered with mounds of butter and a huge ice cream sundae. Sitting next to the plate is a pack of cigarettes.

”This stuff will kill me!” Woody exclaims.

His genial host in the future responds soothingly: ”We used to believe that, but now we know these are the healthiest things you can consume!”