Cigarette Warnings Violate 1st Amendment, Federal Judge Rules

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on March 01, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Food and Drug Administration's new cigarette warnings took another hit on Wednesday. Federal District Judge Richard Leon has again sided with the tobacco companies, finding that the warnings violate the industry's free speech rights.

In addition to textual messages, the challenged rules require cigarette boxes and packaging to carry graphic images depicting the health effects of smoking. The final images include photos of rotting teeth, diseased organs and a dead body.

Judge Leon had initially issued a preliminary injunction in November, blocking the law from temporarily going into effect. In making that injunction permanent, he has again ruled that the new cigarette warnings burden an overwhelming amount of speech and do not serve a compelling government interest.

His decision relied heavily on the distinction between the government's stated intent and the message the warnings actually convey. While educating the public about the dangers of tobacco use "might be compelling, an interest in simply advocating that the public not purchase a legal product is not."

The tobacco industry had argued that the warnings were not purely factual, and were instead forcing them to convince consumers not to buy their product. The judge agreed, finding that the labels were "crafted to evoke a strong emotional response calculated to provoke the viewer to quit or never start smoking."

If smaller in size and purely factual, the new cigarette warnings might not burden free speech.

The Obama Administration had already appealed Judge Leon's November decision, according to Reuters. That case is currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It is likely that this new cigarette warning decision will be appealed right along with it.

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