White House Bucks Court Ruling Against Forced Anti-Smoking Images

Published May 31, 2016

Obama administration officials are pledging to require graphic anti-smoking images on cigarette packages and advertisements despite a federal court ruling the requirement would be unconstitutional.

“This Administration is determined to do everything we can to warn young people about the dangers of smoking, which remains the leading cause of preventable death in America,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement. “This public health initiative will be an effective tool in our efforts to stop teenagers from starting in the first place and taking up this deadly habit. We are confident that efforts to stop these important warnings from going forward will ultimately fail.”

U.S. Federal District Court Judge Richard Leon last week declared unconstitutional a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation that would have forced cigarette makers to place one of nine graphic health warnings on the top half of the front and back of all cigarette packages, and the top fifth of all advertising.

First Amendment Issue

Leon agreed with arguments made by five major tobacco companies that the proposed warnings violated their First Amendment rights by forcing them to distribute an anti-smoking policy message.

“We believe governments, public health officials, tobacco manufacturers and others share a responsibility to provide tobacco consumers with accurate information about the various health risks associated with smoking,” said Martin L. Holton III, executive vice president and general counsel for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. “However, the goal of informing the public about the risks of tobacco use can and should be accomplished consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”

Judge Leon ruled the government may require companies to make “purely factual and uncontroversial” disclosures about the risks of their products. But he added that the graphic warnings crossed into unconstitutional territory.

Over the Line

“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 the line seems quite clear,” he declared in his ruling.

Judge Leon’s decision followed a preliminary injunction against the rules he issued last November. The U.S. Department of Justice is appealing the injunction.

Anti-smoking advocates expressed frustration with his decision and pleasure at the Obama administration’s pledge to impose the rules.

“We’re pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice has already appealed the earlier ruling and is working to preserve this critical requirement of the landmark 2009 law giving the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products,” said Matthew Myers, president for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in a statement. “If allowed to stand, Judge Leon’s rulings would make it impossible to implement any effective warning labels.”

The rule was to take effect this September. It would have forced cigarette makers to put gruesome images of people dying from smoking-related disease, and mouth and gum damage.