Smoking
The tobacco industry fights back in the war against smoking. Image: eschipul/RFlickr/CC BY-SA

Four of the United States’ five tobacco giants filed a lawsuit against the federal government Aug. 16 over graphic images on cigarette packaging required by the FDA starting next year.  The suit says that the requirement violates the industry’s constitutional right of free speech.

FDA-ordered images on cigarette labels

Starting on Sept. 22, 2012, the FDA will require the tobacco industry to rotate nine graphic images on all cigarette packages in an effort to further discourage smokers from lighting up. The images include a cadaver, a man blowing smoke out of a tracheotomy hole, blackened lungs, a mother cradling a child in a haze of smoke and other disturbing images.

Cigarette makers join in lawsuit

Tobacco companies Lorilland, R. J. Reynolds American, Commonwealth Brands and Liggett Group have all joined for the lawsuit protesting the requirement. Only tobacco giant Altria (parent company of Philip Morris USA) has not joined the legal action. The lawsuit argues that by dictating the content on their packaging the FDA is forcing the industry to speak graphically against its own self-interest, effectively abridging the company’s right to free speech.

The lawsuit states:

“Never before in the United States have producers of a lawful product been required to use their own packaging and advertising to convey an emotionally charged government message urging adult consumers to shun their products.”

The lawsuit also states that the packaging requirements would cost them millions in printing.

Images already used abroad

Other countries, such as Australia, Chile, Venezuela and Brazil, have already adopted the use of graphic images on cigarette packaging. Many smokers in those countries have countered the move with cigarette cases and stickers to conceal the images.

History of cigarette warning labels

The U.S. government first began requiring warnings on cigarette packages in 1966. The mandatory label read, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health.” At that time, an estimated 42.4 percent of Americans smoked.

In 1970 the phrasing of the label was changed to “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health.”  From 1985 until the present, cigarette makers have been required to rotate several labels with more specific warnings of smoking-related health issues such as emphysema, fetal injury and heart disease.

In 2009 — the last year for which figures are available — the number of estimated smokers had shrunk to just more than 20 percent. The FDA says its goal is to eventually reduce that number to 12 percent or lower.

Action will push back implementation

Many experts agree that the legal action, win or lose, will give the tobacco companies the advantage of pushing back the implementation date, possibly by several years.

John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, told the AP:

“It probably will slow down the implementation process because they’ll ask for an injunction. It’s not automatic, but since the court hasn’t had a chance to look at all the evidence, they’ll likely put a hold on things and retain the status quo.”

The FDA has declined to comment.

Sources

Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/cigarette-warning-labels-sue-government_n_928900.html
Third Age: http://www.thirdage.com/news/cigarette-lawsuit-could-save-tobacco-industry-money_08-18-2011
Daily Finance: http://www.dailyfinance.com/2011/08/23/cigarette-manufacturers-declare-war-on-fda/

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