US States weigh in on health label suit
RICHMOND, Virginia - The Associated Press
The tobacco firms question the constitutionality of the labels on packages, saying the warnings force them to display government advocacy stronger than branding. AFP PhotoSeveral states and U.S. territories are weighing in on a lawsuit over proposed graphic cigarette warning labels that include a sewn-up corpse of a smoker and a picture of diseased lungs, saying the federal government should be allowed to require the labels for the “lethal and addictive” products.
The 24 attorneys general filed a friend of the court brief on Dec. 23 in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington in support of the Food and Drug Administration’s challenge of a lower court ruling in the case.
Last month, a U.S. District Court judge granted a request by some of the nation’s largest tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co., to block the labels while deciding whether the labels violate their free speech rights. The judge ruled it is likely the cigarette makers would succeed in a lawsuit to block the requirement that the labels be placed on cigarette packs next year.
Representatives for R.J. Reynolds declined to comment. Officials with Lorillard did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Dec. 24.
The tobacco companies have questioned the constitutionality of the labels, saying the warnings don’t simply convey facts to inform people’s decision whether to smoke but instead force the cigarette makers to display government anti-smoking advocacy more prominently than their own branding. They also say that changing cigarette packaging will cost millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, the FDA has said that the public interest in conveying the dangers of smoking outweighs the companies’ free speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In the filing on Dec. 23, the attorneys general said that the First Amendment does not prevent the government from requiring that “lethal and addictive products carry warning labels that effectively inform consumers of the risks those products entail.”
“Over forty years’ experience with small, obscurely placed text-only warning labels on cigarette packs has demonstrated that they simply do not work,” they wrote. “The warning labels reflect the unique magnitude of the problem they address, the deadly and addictive nature of the product, and the unparalleled threat this product and its marketing pose to America’s youth.”
In June, the FDA approved nine new warning labels that companies are to print on the entire top half of cigarette packs, front and back. The new warnings, each of which includes a number for a stop-smoking hotline, must constitute 20 percent of cigarette advertising, and marketers are to rotate use of the images.