Judge Takes a Match to New Cigarette Warning Label Requirement

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 02, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) graphic warning labels for cigarettes are not only bad for the tobacco business, they’re unconstitutional.

When the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals considers an injunction against the new labels in April, it can also consider the latest ruling finding that the labels violate the First Amendment. The D.C. District Court ruled this week that the warnings violated the tobacco industry’s free speech rights without a compelling government interest.

So what pushed the new labels from the legal, educating-the-public realm into First Amendment violation territory? According to District Judge Richard Leon, the new warning label requirement was meant to disgust consumers, rather than inform them about the health consequences of smoking.

The new warning label requirement mandated images -- such as photos of rotting teeth, diseased organs and a dead body -- in addition to the standard textual warning.

Five tobacco companies -- R. J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Commonwealth Brands, the Liggett Group and Santa Fe Natural -- sued the FDA claiming that the new labels went beyond the "compelled commercial speech" that is permissible to protect consumers from confusion and deception, and mandated "grotesque" labels to persuade smokers to quit, reports The New York Times.

In November, Judge Leon issued a temporary injunction blocking the new warning label requirement from taking effect. Judge Leon's ruling in the case on Wednesday made the injunction permanent.

Anti-smoking advocates, however, question whether a ruling was necessary since the Justice Department had already appealed the preliminary injunction to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Oral arguments in the appeal are set for April, reports the Times.

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