Graphic cigarette labels blocked

A mandate for such images violates free speech, a judge ruled.

Posted: March 01, 2012

RICHMOND, Va. - A judge on Wednesday blocked a federal requirement that would have begun forcing U.S. tobacco companies to put large graphic images on their cigarette packages later this year to show the dangers of smoking and encourage smokers to quit lighting up.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled that the mandate to put the images, which include a sewn-up corpse of a smoker and a picture of diseased lungs, on cigarette packages violated free-speech rights.

He had temporarily blocked the requirement in November, saying that cigarette companies were likely to succeed in a lawsuit, which could take years to resolve. The government is already appealing that decision.

Some of the largest U.S. tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Lorillard Tobacco, had questioned the labels' constitutionality, saying the warnings don't simply convey facts to inform people's decision on smoking but instead force cigarette companies to display government antismoking advocacy more prominently than their own branding.

The companies also said changing cigarette packaging would cost millions of dollars.

The Food and Drug Administration has said that the public interest in conveying the dangers of smoking outweighs the companies' free-speech rights.

In his ruling Wednesday, Leon wrote that the graphic images "were neither designed to protect the consumer from confusion or deception, nor to increase consumer awareness of smoking risks; rather, they were crafted to evoke a strong emotional response calculated to provoke the viewer to quit or never start smoking."

The judge also pointed out alternatives for the federal government to curb tobacco use, such as increasing antismoking ads, raising tobacco taxes, reducing the size and changing the content of the labels, and improving efforts to reduce youth access to tobacco products.

The FDA and the Justice Department declined to comment Wednesday.

Tobacco companies increasingly rely on their packaging to build brand loyalty and grab consumers. It's one of few advertising levers left to them after the government curbed their presence in magazines and on billboards and TV.

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