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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The tobacco companies that challenged the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) mandate that tobacco products include graphic warning labels depicting images of diseased lungs and rotting teeth to demonstrate the hazards of smoking won a victory in court today. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled the FDA’s mandate unconstitutional, Reuters reported. Leon had previously granted a temporary injunction on the warning labels in November.
"The government has failed to carry both its burden of demonstrating a compelling interest and its burden of demonstrating that the rule is narrowly tailored to achieve a constitutionally permissible form of compelled commercial speech," Leon said in his ruling.
In 2009, Congress passed legislation ordering the FDA to put the label regulation into effect. It required color warning labels that cover 50 percent of a cigarette pack's front and back panels. Warning labels would also have to cover the top 20 percent of print advertisements. Tobacco companies such as Lorillard Inc. and Reynolds American Inc.'s R.J. Reynolds unit challenged the legislation in court late last year.
Leon's 19-page ruling stated that while educating the public on the effects of smoking "might be compelling, an interest in simply advocating that the public not purchase a legal product is not." He also noted that the warning labels are too large to pass constitutional muster and that the government has numerous other tools to lower smoking rates at its disposal, such as tobacco tax increases.
"Unfortunately, because Congress did not consider the First Amendment implications of this legislation, it did not concern itself with how the regulations could be narrowly tailored to avoid unintentionally compelling commercial speech," Leon wrote.
A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, which represented the FDA in the case, had no comment, according to Reuters.