FDA Tobacco Warning Labels Struck Down by Fed. Appeals Court

By Andrew Lu on August 29, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and said that the agency could not require cigarette manufacturers to put graphic cigarette warning labels on its packaging.

The FDA had proposed nine graphic images to include on the top half of all cigarette packaging. The images would demonstrate the harms of smoking through powerful images such as a man exhaling cigarette smoke through a tracheotomy hole in his throat, and an infant enveloped by cigarette smoke, reports The Associated Press.

These images would accompany existing warning labels that says smoking causes cancer and can harm fetuses.

Some of the nation's largest cigarette companies fought the cigarette warning labels by arguing that they were essentially forced to place a mini billboard on their packaging that advocated against use of its product, reports the AP. After all, it is legal to smoke in the U.S. and it is legal to sell cigarettes. Yet, the tobacco industry argued that it was forced to tell customers not to use their products as they tried to sell the very same products.

On the other hand, the FDA argued that the graphic images were merely statements of fact in visual form and were not advocacy.

The appellate court agreed with the cigarette manufacturers and found that while the FDA may be able to require factual statements on cigarette packaging, the proposed graphic images went beyond factual statements and violated the tobacco industry's free speech rights. As the government cannot generally tell you what you cannot say, the government also cannot tell you what you have to say.

The appeals court decision comes on the heels of another federal appellate court decision in March that upheld the FDA's power to require the graphic cigarette warnings. This conflict between federal appellate courts likely signals that the Supreme Court will eventually have to step in on this issue.

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