U.S. Court to Block Graphic Warning Labels on Cigarettes

This is a big win for the tobacco companies and a disappointing loss for the federal government. 

Posted: 08/31/2012 01:57 PM EDT

The ongoing battle between Big Tobacco and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) continues to play out in the courts.

The U.S. Appeals Court upheld a lower court ruling last week that blocks graphic anti-smoking warning ads on packages of cigarettes, a ruling that’s in favor of the tobacco companies.

In June, the FDA unveiled nine graphic warning ads to be printed on every package of cigarettes sold in the U.S. starting in October of this year. Warning labels on cigarettes aren’t anything new, but these particular ads featured graphic images such as a baby in the intensive care unit; pictures of healthy lungs juxtaposed with lungs that have been damaged by smoking; and a man smoking a cigarette out of a hole in his throat. Each ad boasted a toll-free number to help people to quit smoking.

Big Tobacco has a troublesome history of spending millions of dollars on advertising to the African-American community. In March, BET.com reported on a Stanford School of Medicine study that found that cigarettes ads — especially menthols — are disproportionately geared toward Black children.

It’s our health that really suffers when we smoke cigarettes. Black Americans account for 12 percent of the 46 million adult smokers in the United States, according to the American Lung Association. And while Blacks smoke less than whites, African-Americans are more likely to die of lung cancer. And unfortunately, it's harder for Blacks to quit smoking. In November, BET.com reported that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found while 59 percent of Black smokers tried to quit, only 3.3 percent actually succeeded — the lowest success rate among all races and ethnicities.

FDA officials wanted these ads to explicitly hone in on the dangers of smoking and to serve as motivation to get people to quit smoking. But the major tobacco companies sued the government, and won, to get the ads blocked from being printed on their product.

In turn, the FDA went to the U.S. appeals claiming that blocking the ads were a violation of the First Amendment. Time.com reported:

In the majority opinion, the appeals court wrote that the case raises “novel questions about the scope of the government’s authority to force the manufacturer of a product to go beyond making purely factual and accurate commercial disclosures and undermine its own economic interest — in this case, by making 'every single pack of cigarettes in the country (a) mini billboard' for the government’s anti-smoking message.”

The court also wrote that the FDA “has not provided a shred of evidence” showing that the warnings will “directly advance” its interest in reducing the number of Americans who smoke.

Tobacco companies increasingly rely on their packaging to build brand loyalty and grab consumers — one of the few advertising levers left to them after the government curbed their presence in magazines, billboards and TV.

The FDA wouldn’t speak on the recent court decision, and it’s unclear if they plan on taking this case to higher courts.

To learn more about how to quit smoking, go here.

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(Photo: CNN)

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