Appeals Court Upholds Graphic Warning Labels for Tobacco Products
On Monday, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government has a constitutional right to regulate tobacco products, including mandating graphic warning labels on cigarette packages, Politico reports (Norman, Politico, 3/19).
A three-judge panel in the Cincinnati-based court backed a decision by a lower Kentucky federal court, which found that the government has an interest in protecting consumers from being deceived by tobacco companies' marketing practices. The lower court ruled that provisions of a 2009 law giving FDA the authority to regulate tobacco were legal and did not violate tobacco companies' free speech rights.
The decision upholds a ban on tobacco companies sponsoring athletic, social and cultural events or offering free samples or branded merchandise. It also upheld the requirement that warning labels cover 50% of the tobacco product (AP/USA Today, 3/19).
According to the Wall Street Journal, the ruling in part favors the tobacco industry because it upholds the lower-court ruling allowing the use of color in tobacco advertising (Corbett Dooren, Wall Street Journal, 3/19).
In the court's ruling, Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch noted that FDA's requirements provide "truthful information" to consumers about the hazards of tobacco products, which are warranted given past practices by the industry to deceive customers. She noted that the text warnings since 1984 have required "a college reading level" to understand and likely do "not serve [their] function" with younger consumers. She said, "The new warnings rationally address these problems by being larger and including graphics" (AP/USA Today, 3/19).
However, Judge Eric Clay dissented from the graphic label ruling. He called the requirement "simply unprecedented," adding that while the government can require tobacco manufacturers to give truthful information, "it is less clearly permissible for the government to simply frighten consumers or to otherwise attempt to flagrantly manipulate the emotions of consumers as it seeks to do here."
The decision follows a ruling by a Washington, D.C., judge last month in a separate case that found the graphic warning label requirement unconstitutional (Baynes, Reuters, 3/19). In that ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon said the requirement violates the free speech rights of tobacco companies (California Healthline, 3/2).
Susan Liss, executive director for The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called the ruling "a critical step" in allowing FDA to regulate tobacco products. She added, "The ruling is a clear victory for public health."
Floyd Abrams, an attorney for Lorillard Tobacco, said that he believes that the decision will ultimately be heard by the Supreme Court, noting that the ruling did not specifically address the content of the cigarette labels. "Taken as a whole, I think the decision seems to reflect a reluctance to give sufficient weight to First Amendment concerns," he said (AP/USA Today, 3/19).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.