Judge Rules Graphic Cigarette Warning Labels Unconstitutional

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The government’s effort to put graphic warning labels about the dangers of smoking on cigarette packs hit another legal snag on Wednesday.

A Washington judge declared unconstitutional a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandate that would force cigarette makers to use the labels, which include images of a corpse of a smoker, smoking-damaged teeth and gums and diseased lungs, saying that it violated cigarette makers’ freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon wrote in his ruling that the images “were neither designed to protect the consumer from confusion or deception, nor to increase consumer awareness of smoking risks; rather, they were crafted to evoke a strong emotional response calculated to provoke the viewer to quit or never start smoking.”

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That’s been the argument of cigarette makers, who say that the images go beyond merely informing the public to forcing the manufacturers to advertise the government’s anti-smoking agenda, with the purpose of convincing smokers to give up the habit.

Leon’s ruling fell in line with his previous decision in the case in November, when he issued a temporary injunction blocking the new labeling effort. That decision has already been appealed by the government.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 gave the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco products for the first time. Under that law, the FDA required cigarette makers to cover the top half of the front and back of cigarette packs with the graphic warning labels and to use the images in 20% of their advertising. The new labeling is to go into effect by Sept. 22, 2012, but five major tobacco companies have sued the government over the requirement for violating their freedom of speech.

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Other members of the tobacco industry are suing over the original law granting the FDA authority to limit nicotine content in tobacco products and to restrict companies from marketing efforts such as sponsoring events and giving away free samples. That case is pending appeal.

In a statement issued after Judge Leon’s ruling, the Department of Health and Human Services said it was undeterred in its effort to bring stronger warnings to cigarette labels:

This Administration is determined to do everything we can to warn young people about the dangers of smoking, which remains the leading cause of preventable death in America. This public health initiative will be an effective tool in our efforts to stop teenagers from starting in the first place and taking up this deadly habit. We are confident that efforts to stop these important warnings from going forward will ultimately fail.

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