The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was blocked by a federal judge Wednesday from requiring tobacco companies to put graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington said the government’s rule violates the tobacco companies’ rights to free speech.
“These mandatory graphic images violate the First Amendment by unconstitutionally compelling speech,” Leon wrote in his decision.
Under direction from Congress, the FDA selected nine images, including ones of a corpse and cancerous lungs. The FDA wanted to require tobacco companies beginning Sept. 22 to put one of the labels on each pack of cigarettes, pairing the images with text such as “Smoking can kill you.” The graphics were supposed to cover the top half of the front and back of cigarette packages and 20 percent of print advertisements.
Units of Lorillard Inc. and Reynolds American Inc., along with Commonwealth Brands Inc. and Liggett Group, sued the FDA in August, claiming the mandates for cigarette packages, cartons and advertising would violate the First Amendment. The companies said in court papers that it would cost them a combined total of about $20 million to meet the 2012 deadline.
“The opinion is a straightforward and clear affirmation that compelled speech by the government is not only rarely constitutional but plainly unconstitutional in this case,” Floyd Abrams, a lawyer for Lorillard, said in a phone interview.
Michelle Bolek, an FDA spokeswoman, said the agency doesn’t comment on litigation as a matter of policy.
Christopher Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said the ruling “is bad for public health” and a “victory for big tobacco.”
Canada, the U.K. and Brazil are among countries that require graphic cigarette warnings. One in five Canadian smokers reported smoking less as a result of graphic labels in a 2004 study of more than 600 people.
The case is R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 11-cv-01482, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).