Health

Federal court: FDA's cigarette warning mandate not unconstitutional

March 21, 2012, 8:06 a.m.

An example of one of the warnings that tobacco companies will be required to place on their cigarette packs by September 2012 is pictured above. (Credit: Food and Drug Administration)


A federal appeals court ruled on Monday that the Food and Drug Administration's requirement that tobacco companies put graphic warning labels on packs of cigarettes was not unconstitutional.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which took effect in 2009, granted the FDA the authority to regularly tobacco and tobacco marketing for the first time. Time reports the decision came in one of two cases brought by tobacco companies against the government. In addition to the labels, the law allows the FDA to ban claims by tobacco companies that their products are "low tar" or light", as well as prevent tobacco companies from sponsoring social events, giving away free samples or using branded merchandize.

The appeals court ruled against tobacco companies' claims that the law violates their First Amendment rights.

In the other case, a federal judge made the opposite ruling and ruled against the government and blocked the labels because they violate freedom of speech. The government is in the midst of appealing that decision, which occurred in late February.

According to Time, the appeals court ruled that the government has a "legitimate interest" in making sure consumers are truthfully informed about the health hazards of smoking.

Tobacco companies, which were already required to put text warnings on their cigarette packs after the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act took effect in 1965, object to graphic nature of the warnings, which include a man smoking out a tracheotomy hole in his throat, a child staring fearfully at a plume of cigarette smoke, and visual evidence of how smoking can damage a person's teeth and gums.

The law will take full effect by October 2012, in that cigarette manufacturers will no longer be allowed to distribute cigarettes for sale in the U.S. unless they display the new warnings.

The ruling comes on the heels of a new ad campaign by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that aims to shock smokers into quitting. At a price tag of $54 million, the campaign is the agency's first national advertising effort and will run for 12 weeks with TV, radio, billboard, magazine, newspaper, online and theater placements. Like the FDA's cigarette pack warnings, the CDC doesn't shy away from shock value, featuring real people – that is to say, non-actors – who have experienced various illness stemming from their tobacco use. (Note: the following ad clips from the CDC's campaign are graphic.)

The CDC estimates that 19.3 percent of adults in the U.S. smoke, and the L.A. County Department of Public Health released a report in 2010 that said 14.3 of the county's residents are smokers. The report found that approximately 8,500 people die in the county every year because of smoking, meaning one in seven annual deaths can be attributed to smoking.

South Los Angeles, however, is a little smokier than the rest of the county. City Councilwoman Jan Perry's Ninth District had a 18.7 percent rate of adult smokers, putting the Ninth District close to the national average. Areas like Florence-Graham and Compton came in at 14.9 and 15.9 percent, respectively, which is still higher than the county's overall percentage.

All photos by the Food and Drug Administration.

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