Supreme Court Agrees: Cigarette Warning Labels Don’t Violate Big Tobacco’s Free Speech

finalsmokingwarningsthumbFor the last several years, the tobacco industry has been fighting a federal law that requires, among other restrictions, cigarette manufacturers to place graphic warning labels on packaging. Big Tobacco may need to finally get with the program, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the companies’ challenge to the law on the grounds that it violates their First Amendment rights.

In addition to the warning labels on packaging, the law forbids cigarette brands from sponsoring sporting and cultural events. To the tobacco industry, this was seen as suppression of its right to free speech. In Feb. 2012, a U.S. District Court judge in D.C. agreed, adding that the government has other methods at its disposal, like raising taxes, to curb cigarette use.

However, only weeks later a U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Cincinnati ruled in the opposite direction, saying, “There can be no doubt that the government has a significant interest in preventing juvenile smoking and in warning the general public about the harms associated with the use of tobacco products,” and that just because images of rotting teeth or cancerous lungs might disgust consumers, that doesn’t make the labels unconstitutional.

This morning, the Supremes issued an order letting that Appeals Court ruling stand without comment.

However, don’t expect to see the controversial labels on your packs of Camels or Virginia Slims in the immediate future. The Appeals Court ruling only dealt with the legality of the law and did not address the content of the labels themselves. The District Courts had previously ruled against some of the graphic images, saying the FDA had not provided enough proof that these particular gory pictures would do anything to cut down on smoking.

And so it could be a year or more before the FDA goes through the lengthy rule-making process to come up with the final labels that will eventually decorate consumers’ smokes.

Top Court Denies Free-Speech Challenge to Tobacco Law [WSJ.com]