Cigarette Warnings Blocked by Court on Free-Speech Grounds

Judge: The Line 'Seems Quite Clear'

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Proposed FDA rules would mean graphic visual images on packs.
Proposed FDA rules would mean graphic visual images on packs.
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A federal judge blocked new U.S. rules for graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging from taking effect, saying the required text and images may violate tobacco companies' free speech rights.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in Washington ruled today that ordering tobacco companies, including Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., to display images of diseased lungs and a cadaver with chest staples on an autopsy table may "unconstitutionally compel speech."

Mr. Leon postponed the Sept. 22 , 2012, deadline for the regulations to take effect while he reviews the constitutionality of the Food and Drug Administration rule.

"While the line between the constitutionally permissible dissemination of factual information and the impermissible expropriation of a company's advertising space for government advocacy can be frustratingly blurry, here -- where these emotion-provoking images are coupled with text extolling consumers to call the phone number '1-800-QUIT' -- the line seems quite clear," Mr. Leon said in his ruling.

Lorillard, R.J. Reynolds, Commonwealth Brands, Liggett Group and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. sued the FDA in August, claiming its mandates for cigarette packages, cartons and advertising violate the First Amendment.

Stephanie Yao, a spokeswoman for the agency, said by email that the agency "does not comment on proposed, pending or ongoing litigation."

Ronald Milstein, Greensboro, North Carolina-based Lorillard's senior VP-general counsel, didn't immediately return telephone messages seeking comment on the ruling.

'Final Resolution'
"We're pleased with the judge's ruling and look forward to the court's final resolution of the case," Bryan Hatchell, a spokesman for Reynolds American Inc., R.J. Reynolds's parent, said in an interview.

In an e-mailed statement, Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the Justice Department should appeal Leon's ruling, claiming it makes it "impossible to implement any effective" warning labels.

"Given the overwhelming evidence of the need for these warnings and the tobacco industry's own admission of the factual accuracy of the warning statements, we are confident that this decision will not be the last word on the new warnings," Mr. Myers said.

The FDA regulations require textual warnings as well as certain images to be displayed on the top 50% of the front and back panels of every cigarette package manufactured and distributed in the U.S.

--Bloomberg News

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