A federal judge recently ruled that the requirement that cigarette manufacturers include graphic warning images – including images of rotting teeth and diseased lungs – on the cigarette label ise unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon held that the requirement that tobacco companies include the graphic labels on the cigarette pack’s label violated their free speech rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution. According to this article, the Obama Administration has appealed the decision.
Judge Leon’s decision, issued on February 29, 2012, stated: “The government has failed to carry both its burden of demonstrating a compelling interest and its burden of demonstrating that the rule is narrowly tailored to achieve a constitutionally permissible form of compelled commercial speech.” Judge Leon found that the warning labels were too large and that the government possessed numerous other options to deter smoking, including raising taxes on cigarettes or requiring factual information on labels.
The label images were the result of a directive from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which was ordered to adopt label regulation by a 2009 law. The label regulations included requirements that color warning labels cover the top 50 percent of a cigarette package’s front and back panels, and the top 20 percent of print advertisements. Following the Congressional instruction, the FDA released nine warning images in June 2011 that were slated to go into effect in September 2012. The images would have marked the first change in cigarette warning labels in 25 years. Currently, cigarette labels are only required to carry the U.S. Surgeon General’s text warnings.
Big tobacco, including Reynolds American Inc’s R.J. Reynolds unit, Lorillard Inc, Liggett Group LLC, Commonwealth Brands Inc, and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. Inc., challenged the FDA’s label requirement, arguing that inclusion of the graphic images on their labels would violate their First Amendment right to free speech by forcing them to engage in anti-smoking campaigns that conflicted with the marketing of their own legal products.
Following Judge Leon’s decision, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society and other health groups requested that the Obama Administration appeal the decision, citing the decision as a threat to public health. The American Lung Associated has stated, “We strongly disagree with [the judge’s] conclusion that the new graphic warnings are ‘neither factual nor accurate…The facts are clear and indisputable that cigarette smoking is addictive, harms children, causes fatal lung disease, cancer, strokes and heart disease, and can kill you.”
Judge Leon’s decision conflicts with a 2010 federal court decision of the Western District of Kentucky, in which the court held that the graphic images were legal.
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