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FDA's "graphic" cigarette warnings struck down

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The FDA has suffered another setback in its relentless campaign to turn every cigarette pack into a "mini-billboard" for its anti-smoking agenda. The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has upheld a lower court decision striking down the agency's rules that would require cigarette makers to include certain government-approved "graphic warnings" against smoking. Nothing too extreme, mind you, just a man blowing smoke out of a tracheotomy hole and similar pictures.

As reported last November, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon initially granted a preliminary injunction against the FDA rules. In February of this year, he issued a final ruling striking down the graphic warning requirement as unconstitutional "compelled speech." The DC Circuit affirmed on August 24.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment right to say what you want would be meaningless if the government could force you to say things you don't want. In Wooley v. Maynard, for example, the Court affirmed that Jehovah's Witnesses in New Hampshire could not be forced to use license plates with the State's motto: Live Free or Die.

Although commercial speech often merits less protection under existing precedents, there is clearly a liberty problem with forcing manufacturers to do everything possible to dissuade potential customers from buying their product. As the DC Circuit points out, manufacturers have been compelled to include certain information on labeling or other advertising if the information is (1) strictly factual, and (2) without the information, the company's advertising would be misleading. In this case, however, the FDA doesn't argue that current cigarette labels are misleading -- they include all the textual warnings. The FDA just thinks that the packages aren't scary enough; thus, they would require that 50 percent of the front and back panels of every cigarette pack contain pictures, e.g., of women crying, small children, and the guy with the tracheotomy. As the DC Circuit concluded, the images do not convey factual information, but are "unabashed attempts to evoke emotion (and perhaps embarrassment) and browbeat customers into quitting.

And yet, the government would have the courts review its rules under the weakest form of scrutiny available. By the FDA's logic, the government could dictate that every stick of butter be wrapped in images of open-heart surgery, that every candy bar be emblazoned with pictures of rotting teeth, and every sugary drink carry images of obese children -- and these rules would be virtually unreviewable.

The FDA could not even produce evidence that the graphic images would be effective -- the agency estimated a mere 0.088 decrease in smoking rates as a result of the shock-and-awe campaign. Ultimately, the agency seems to want the graphic warnings because "everybody else is doing it." The FDA cited a "strong worldwide consensus" based on the actions of various countries, including Mongolia, Venezuela, Singapore, and Iran. " It is worth noting," the Court said, "that the constitutions of these countries do not necessarily protect individual liberties as stringently as does the United States Constitution." You can say that again.

The case is R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. FDA, No. 11-5332, slip op. (DC Cir. Aug. 24, 2012).

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.