Court Rules in Tobacco Warning Label Case

( – A court of appeals ruled that mandatory warnings on tobacco products that include graphic photographs to demonstrate the harmful effects of smoking are not in violation of the First Amendment.

On Thursday, March 21, a panel of three judges of the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that requiring cigarette packing and advertisements to include warnings with graphic pictures demonstrating the negative effects of smoking is not a First Amendment violation. The decision represents a small victory for government regulators attempting to increase warning label regulations.

Although the appellate struck down the free speech challenge, it did not strike down another challenge to the rule raised by the tobacco industry that argues the policy goes against the Administrative Procedure Act governing such regulations at the federal level. That challenge will be sent back to a lower court for review.

What the ruling ultimately determined is that requiring strong warning labels on cigarettes does not violate the First Amendment, nor do such warnings occupy excessive space on cigarette packs or ads in such a way as to obscure the branding or intended messaging. The decision overturned a former ruling in a Texas federal district court that declared the warning requirements as free speech violations.

One of the 5th Circuit judges, Jerry Smith, wrote in the decision that they disagreed with that Texas decision, declaring that the package and ad warnings are “factual and uncontroversial.” Despite reversing the First Amendment decision, the panel did not make a decision on the challenge based on the APA, sending it back to the lower district court.

Among the images contested in the case is one depicting a man with a large surgery scar on his chest accompanied by a caption warning purchasers about the risk of heart disease or strokes from smoking. Another depicted a woman with a tumor on her neck and a caption warning about increased cancer risk in the head or neck.

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