U.S. Appeals Court Strikes Down Graphic Cigarette Warning Labels

Big Tobacco wins this round, but the Supreme Court may have the ultimate say on graphic cigarette warning labels.

There will be no graphic warning labels on cigarette packages—for now. A federal appeals court ruled against making the labels a requirement. (Photo: C. Sherburne/PhotoLink/Getty Images)

Aug 24, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Don’t look for graphic photos on cigarette packages anytime soon. A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled today that tobacco companies will not be required by the government to display explicit images warning people about smoking’s ills.

In a two-to-one decision, the Washington, D.C. appeals court upheld a lower court decision that the requirement violated First Amendment rights. While the government argued that photographs of diseased lungs and rotted teeth would cut smoking rates, tobacco companies insisted the ads went against their right to free speech.

Reuters quoted part of the majority opinion written by Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit: “This case raises novel questions about the scope of the government's authority to force the manufacturer of a product to go beyond making purely factual and accurate commercial disclosures and undermine its own economic interest—in this case, by making ‘every single pack of cigarettes in the country mini billboard’ for the government's anti-smoking message.”

MORE: The CDC Says More Graphic Anti-Smoking Ads Are on the Way

The court also said that the FDA didn’t have enough evidence proving the labels would have a substantial impact on smoking statistics.

USA Today quoted Floyd Abrams, an attorney for Lorillard Tobacco, as saying, “It's a significant vindication of First Amendment principles. There's never been any doubt that the government could require warnings on products that can have dangerous results. And what the court is saying is that there are real limits on the ability of the government to require the manufacturer of a lawful product to denounce the product in the course of trying to sell it.”

The FDA has not issued a statement on the case, saying it doesn’t comment on lawsuits. But a statement from Matthew L. Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, urged the Justice Department to appeal the ruling.

MORE: Smoking Rates Around the World Are Astronomical

“Today's ruling is wrong on the science and law, and it is by no means the final word on the new cigarette warnings,” he wrote. “The graphic cigarette warnings were mandated by a large, bipartisan majority of Congress. As the Sixth Circuit's ruling recognized, Congress acted based on strong scientific evidence and in accordance with First Amendment precedents that support the government's right to regulate commercial speech and require strong warning labels to protect public health.”

The Sixth Circuit ruling that Myers refers to another case earlier this year and decided by a U.S. Appeals Court in Cincinnati. In this case, the court mostly sided with the FDA.

But in the Cincinnati case, Reuters said, the FDA showed no images, so the court ruled on the agency’s regulatory ability.

The dueling decisions are fueling speculation that the case could ultimately be decided in the Supreme Court.

The trend in graphic warning labels is picking up elsewhere around the world, such as Europe and Brazil. Australia’s High Court just upheld a law barring tobacco companies from displaying their brand logos on cigarette packages. Instead, the packs will be covered with graphic images and warnings about smoking’s hazards, with brand names displayed on a plain strip.

Do you want to see graphic cigarette warning labels on packages? Let us know in the comments.

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