Big Tobacco Wins Cigarette Label-Warning Case

The public lost the latest round of safety versus commerce when the federal government gave up its effort to require cigarette manufacturers to include prominent images on cigarette labels warning of the dangers of smoking.

As reported last week by the Washington Post, the FDA decided it couldn’t make a court-imposed deadline, and succumbed to the formidable opposition by the tobacco industry. (We recently wrote about the ongoing shiftiness of this industry.) Two years ago, the agency announced it would compel tobacco companies to include grisly images such as disease-riddled lungs, a smoker’s corpse and a man exhaling smoke through a tracheotomy hole in his throat on all cigarette packages.

The labels also were supposed to include the stop-smoking hotline telephone number, (800) QUIT-NOW.

The FDA, according to The Post, said it would “undertake research to support a new rulemaking consistent with the Tobacco Control Act.” That’s the 2009 law requiring the agency to find ways to reduce the estimated 440,000 annual deaths attributable to tobacco use. We also wrote recently about how states’ budget cuts are compromising their ability to help smokers quit the lethal habit.

Big Tobacco, with its unlimited resources and zeal to keep people hooked on its deadly products, sued the FDA after it initiated the requirements in 2011. The industry said the required labels were too broad and violated its First Amendment rights. A federal judge issued a temporary injunction late that year, and in early 2012 ruled in favor of tobacco. He said that the proposed labels went too far, and were “neither designed to protect the consumer from confusion or deception, nor to increase consumer awareness of smoking risks.”

He said they were intended, according to The Post, “to evoke emotional responses that would provoke people to quit smoking or never start.”

In his ruling, he wrote that “an interest in informing or educating the public about the dangers of smoking might be compelling,” but that “an interest in simply advocating that the public not purchase a legal product is not.”

Last summer he was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals on the grounds the requirements breached the First Amendment. The government decided it couldn’t meet the deadline to appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Several countries use horrifyingly graphic labels on cigarette packages. A World Health Organization survey, according to The Post, found that they were more effective as a deterrent to smoking than labels that issue warnings only in text.

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