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Health warnings may violate tobacco company rights says judge

Wed 1st February, 2012

USA: A federal rule requiring large graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging and advertising may violate the free speech rights of tobacco companies.

Five cigarette makers are suing to overturn a Food and Drug Administration rule requiring companies to label tobacco products with images of rotting teeth, diseased lungs and other images intended to illustrate the dangers of smoking.

The FDA was directed to adopt the rule by the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which requires colour warning labels big enough to cover the top 50 percent of a cigarette pack's front and back panels, and the top 20 percent of print advertisements. The law gave the FDA broad powers over cigarette and tobacco products for the first time.

US District Judge Richard Leon, who last November issued a temporary injunction blocking the rule, said he would issue his final ruling in the case well before April 10.

"There's nothing on the record to suggest that Congress gave any clear and thoughtful analysis on the First Amendment implications of this," the judge said.

At the hearing, Justice Department attorney Mark Stern said the images were needed to reach adolescent smokers in danger of becoming addicted to nicotine and adult smokers already addicted.

"We want to really get through. We're not trying to disgust you. We're trying to remind you," he told the court.

"It's no secret that the government wants people to stop smoking. It would be crazy for the government not to want people to stop smoking," Stern said. "It's very unusual for people to sell a product, that when used as intended, will kill you."

Tobacco company attorney Noel Francisco argued that the graphic labels provide no information that could not be conveyed in written messages like the U.S. surgeon general's warnings that already appear on cigarette packs and advertisements.

"Consumers are overwhelmingly aware of the risks of smoking," said Francisco, contending that many people overestimate health dangers associated with smoking.

Source: Reuters (1 February 2012)

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