- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The federal government cannot force tobacco companies to put large graphic images and anti-smoking warnings on their cigarette packages, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

“Although an interest in informing or educating the public about the dangers of smoking might be compelling, an interest in simply advocating that the public not purchase a legal product is not,” wrote U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon in the District of Columbia.

Five tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., sued to block the Food and Drug Administration rule, arguing that it forced them to serve as an “unwilling mouthpiece” for the government’s anti-smoking messages.

Judge Leon already had issued a temporary restraining order against the FDA from implementing its graphic health-warnings rule, and Wednesday’s ruling on the lawsuits makes the bar permanent.

The FDA declined to comment Wednesday.

Dr. Robert W. Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, condemned the ruling.

“With 10 million cigarettes sold every minute and almost 3,000 children under the age of 18 starting to smoke each day, this ruling puts children’s lives at risk,” he said.

Congress passed a law in 2009 allowing the FDA to add warnings about smoking on cigarette packages. The agency developed nine warnings and images, including diseased lungs and a human cadaver, and instructed tobacco companies to begin putting those images on the top halves of all cigarette packages beginning in September.

A hotline, 800/QUIT-NOW, was to be included on the labels too.

“Unfortunately, because Congress did not consider the First Amendment implications of this legislation,” Judge Leon wrote, “it did not concern itself with how the regulations could be narrowly tailored to avoid unintentionally compelling commercial speech.”