Appeals Court Rules for Tobacco Cos. in Warning Label Suit

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Appeals Court Rules for Tobacco Cos. in Warning Label Suit


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Tobacco companies have scored another legal victory in their fight against the Food and Drug Administration's graphic cigarette warning labels. Today, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court's ruling banning the mandate on First Amendment grounds.

In a 2-to-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., affirmed a lower court ruling that the requirement violated the First Amendment's free speech protections. The appeals court tossed out the requirement and told the FDA to go back to the drawing board.

The FDA released its nine graphic warnings in June 2011 with the mandate that they appear on all cigarette packaging and advertising by Sept. 22, 2012. That mandate, however, was met with a lawsuit filed by several tobacco companies -- Lorillard Inc, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Commonwealth Brands Inc. and Liggett Group LLC, as CSNews Online previously reported.

The legal challenge landed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., where Judge Richard Leon ruled in February that the warnings -- a mix of text and graphic images -- violated the First Amendment. "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.

The FDA immediately appealed the ruling and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. began to hear arguments in April.

According to the Associated Press, in today's majority opinion, the appeals court wrote that the 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 (a) mini billboard' for the government's anti-smoking message."

The court also wrote that the FDA "has not provided a shred of evidence" showing that the warnings will "directly advance" its interest in reducing the number of Americans who smoke.

"It's a significant vindication of First Amendment principles," said Floyd Abrams, an attorney representing Lorillard Tobacco. "There's never been any doubt that the government could require warnings on products that can have dangerous results. And what the court is saying is that there are real limits on the ability of the government to require the manufacturer of a lawful product to denounce the product in the course of trying to sell it."

The FDA declined to comment on pending litigation and the Justice Department said it would review the appeals court ruling. Public health groups are urging the government to appeal, the news outlet reported.