Ruling on Cigarette Pack Warnings Stirs Free Speech Debate

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Judge Blocks FDA's Graphic Warnings on Cigarette PacksA court ruling Monday stubbed out an FDA attempt to plaster extremely graphic warning labels on cigarette packs. The decision has anti-tobacco groups fuming and has reignited a debate over which right trumps which: The right of the government to warn Americans about the health risks of smoking, or the First Amendment rights of tobacco companies.

One thing both sides agree on -- the labels feature horrific images, including depictions of a man smoking through a tracheotomy hole, a pair of putrefied lungs and even a corpse on an autopsy table. The accompanying texts are stark and unequivocal, such as, "WARNING: Smoking can kill you."

The Food and Drug Administration, which had mandated the labels and was on the losing side of Monday's ruling, says that the disgusting images would reduce the number of smokers by 213,000 by 2013 and save between $221 million to $630 million in health care costs over the next 20 years.

The labels, set to hit cigarettes next year, would have been part of the first update of tobacco warnings in 25 years

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon opined that the images are too far removed from the objective of simply providing consumers with "factual and uncontroversial information." The judge issued an injunction against the FDA that prohibits the labels from being imposed until the lawsuit is resolved, which could take years. Some expect the Supreme Court will ultimately rule on the issue.

"The government's actual purpose is not to inform, but rather to advocate a change in consumer behavior," the judge wrote in this ruling. Compelling the tobacco companies to place advocacy on their marketing space violates their First Amendment rights, he decided.

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, disagreed. "The judge mischaracterized the goal, purpose and effect of the warnings," which he said the FDA adopted because it determined "that they were the most effective warnings at communicating the health effects of smoking," he told DailyFinance.

Fifty years of experience with text-only warnings has shown that they are often ignored, said Myers, who has been involved in creating anti-tobacco legislation. "The FDA concluded that for a warning to be effective, it has to be seen, noticed, provoke the reader to think about the issue, and effectively communicate level of risk. The FDA's conclusion about these warnings is based upon the best science -- the science of communication."

This shouldn't come as a surprise, Myers said, noting that tobacco companies use images when they advertise.

According to Myers, it is well-established in First Amendment law that government has the right to require warning labels on dangerous products. "If government has the right to require warnings labels," Myers reasons, "it has the right to require effective warning labels." He said the government will appeal, and that he hopes it does so quickly.

Is it wrong to compel a company to potentially dissuade consumers from buying its products? Or does the appallingly high cost -- both human and financial -- of tobacco use justify such action? Do young people and other at-risk populations need all the help they can get in making healthy life-choices, or have the tobacco companies been regulated enough, with so little advertising space left aside from their packaging? Vote in our poll:
Do you think the larger, graphic labels for cigarette packs are a good idea?
Yes669 (41.1%)
No957 (58.9%)

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John Potterf

I think that the tobacco companies were punished too much. The money that they had to pay out to educate people about the ill effects of smoking went to pay for side walks and other things that the politicos decided to waste it on

November 09 2011 at 2:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Debbie L. Garrison

The new Surgen General Warning Labels are a crock! It's like looking at sex education films in school ewwwwwwwwwor do the LOL but you're gonna do it anyway with or without the protection. Commercials or Ads weren't banned when M>A>D>D> raised a stink. Alochol abuse effects your health conditions or kills faster than a carton of cigarettes every week or two depending on how much you smoke. The government wants to control YOU and control ITs money. you drink ...you pay a price to the city and state plus having a conscience about having killed or injured someone from drinking and driving and this is ok? If the government was so worried about our health conditions it would put our taxes to a better use.

November 09 2011 at 7:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
medcoderpat

I want to when the alcohol companys are going to put warning labels on there bottles of the health issues from drinking. When they do that then ask the tobacco company to put theres. Where is the out cry about alcohol i never here from advocate groups I guess they don't care and want people to die from drinking alcohol that has much worst health issues.

November 09 2011 at 12:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Leanne

I'm a smoker and I recently went down to Cancun. All their cigarettes have huge warning labels on them and graphic pictures. I came back still a smoker. The effects of pictures or warning labels do not do a damn thing. Smokers know the risks. Placing a picture or bigger label doesn't change anything. Use that money for something our country really needs.

November 09 2011 at 12:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jcrtexas2

if the government loses the tax revenue from tobbaco products where do they think they are going to make it up.

November 09 2011 at 12:24 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rmcaras520

Mr Meyers, all those kids in government schools get scads of effective warnings about the effects of smoking in their health classes. Don't sweat it. But do come out against smoking medical marijuana as a delivery method.

Lets not bombard the general public with gross images...whats next, showing fatty livers, worn out hearts from poor diets? Rotten teeth & gums from poor dental hygiene? ravaged skin/tumors from sun-tanning? alcohol damaged livers & pancreas? That should NOT be the role of government.

November 08 2011 at 11:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Martin

I am a recent non-smoker. To me, this has nothing to do with free speech. It has to do with the freedom of commerce.
The tobacco companies grow the plants, make the cigarettes and print the packages. ALL LEGAL ACTIVITIES. If the government wants to put advertising on the packs, they should have to pay a fair price, determined by the tobacco companies. In fact, if Phillip Morris would allow Budweiser, Jack Daniels and Uncle Sam to advertise, the price of a pack of cigarettes might go down to 50 cents a pack. I am sick and tired of the government intruding in my health and life style choices. America is not as free as it used to be 40 years ago. I mostly blame religious zealots, aka Republicans.

November 08 2011 at 11:14 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
alucky1128f8@aol

OUR GOVERMENT IS TRYING TO TELL US WHAT TO DO AND HOW TO DO IT !!!!! SHUT UP BIG MOUTH GOVERMENT !!! I HAVE FAMILY AND FRIENDS THAT SMOKE AND ITS OK WITH ME, AT LEAST THEY CAN SMOKE AND DRIVE WITHOUT KILLING PEOPLE ON THE HIGHWAYS !!!!!!. I BELIEVE OBAMA RAISED THE PRICE FROM 24 DOLLARS A CARTON TO 48 DOLLARS A CARTON TO PAY FOR HIS OBAMA CARE !!!!! WHAT A FOOL OF A PRESIDENT !!!!!! LIBS HAVE NO SENSE AT ALL !!!!!!!.

November 08 2011 at 10:33 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
travelergtoo

Nicotine is A drug and carcinogen and as such should be regulated by the FDA.

November 08 2011 at 10:28 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to travelergtoo's comment
Martin

Guess what. Many people go insane, into spasms and hallucinations when they pray to their God. The Bible, Koran, Torah, etc, etc, should be regulated by Homeland Security. Enjoy your Bud or Jack.

November 08 2011 at 11:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brian Flewallen

sheit, if the government wants to warn us about something... how bout taxation without representation? how about warning us about the crooked politicians in washington? how about warning us the next time we have an economical breakdown? that would be nice... to me it seems that the health risk for cigarettes is pretty obvious... if u cant see the harm in smoking, then your not a very smart person... i dunno about anybody else, but i would like to get a heads up the next time a bank goes bankrupt so i can warn my friends n family... **** cigarettes, protect me from the banking structure in this country!!!

November 08 2011 at 10:26 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply