US blocks graphic tobacco images


A US appeals court last night struck down a law that requires tobacco companies to use graphic health warnings, such as of a man exhaling smoke through a hole in his throat.

The 2-1 decision by the court in Washington, DC, contradicts another appeals court's ruling in a similar case earlier this year, setting up the possibility the US Supreme Court will weigh in on the dispute.

The court's majority in the latest ruling found the label requirement from the US Food and Drug Administration violated corporate speech rights.

"This case raises novel questions about the scope of the government's authority to force the manufacturer of a product to go beyond making purely factual and accurate commercial disclosures and undermine its own economic interest - in this case, by making 'every single pack of cigarettes in the country mini billboard' for the government's anti-smoking message," wrote Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The FDA "has not provided a shred of evidence" showing that the graphic labels would reduce smoking, the judge added.

Five tobacco companies representing most of the major cigarette makers in the US challenged the FDA rules: Reynolds American Inc, Lorillard Inc ; Commonwealth Brands Inc, which is owned by Britain's Imperial Tobacco Group Plc; Liggett Group LLC and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co Inc.

The FDA has argued the images of rotting teeth and diseased lungs are accurate and necessary to warn consumers - especially teenagers - about the risks of smoking.

The health agency said it does not comment on possible, pending or ongoing litigation. The US Department of Justice, which argued the case for the FDA, said it needs to review the ruling before deciding on next steps.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which has vigorously supported stricter cigarette laws, urged the government to appeal.

"Today's ruling is wrong on the science and law, and it is by no means the final word on the new cigarette warnings," said Matthew Myers, the group's president, in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates some 45 million US adults smoke cigarettes, which are the leading cause of preventable death in the US.

And the World Health Organization predicts smoking could kill 8 million people each year by 2030 if governments do not do more to help people quit.

The US Surgeon General warned in March that youth smoking has reached epidemic proportions, as one in four US high school seniors is a regular cigarette smoker, paving the way to a lifetime of addiction.