Big Tobacco Prevails

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts ban on tobacco advertising near schools and playgrounds, saying the rules would violate the rights of cigarette and smokeless tobacco makers to tout their products.

The justices ruled 5-4 that a federal cigarette labeling law broadly precludes states from regulating tobacco advertising. A splintered court also concluded the state's restrictions were so broad they violated the U.S. Constitution's free-speech clause, the Associated Press reported.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing the court's main opinion, said the legitimate desire of state lawmakers to stamp out underage tobacco use had to yield to federal restrictions.

Federal law "places limits on the policy choices available to the states," O'Connor wrote in a section of the 42-page opinion joined by four other justices. The ruling calls into question restrictions on tobacco ads in dozens of jurisdictions, including New York and Chicago. More broadly, it extends a series of Supreme Court decisions that have strengthened constitutional protections for advertising.

Philip Morris Cos. and other cigarette makers already agreed to a host of marketing restrictions, including a ban on billboards, as part of their landmark 1998 accords with state attorneys general, the report said.

The Massachusetts rules would have gone further, limiting in-store advertisements as well as outdoor signs. The rules, which were never enforced, applied within 1,000 feet of a school or playground.

Tobacco companies said the restraints amounted to a near-total ban, covering about 90 percent of the state's three largest metropolitan areas. O'Connor said the scope of the law was too broad to pass constitutional muster.

The 1998 settlements were designed to limit minors' exposure to tobacco advertising, though the companies should still be able to advertise to adults, R.J. Reynolds said. "In order to compete for adult smokers' business, we must be able to communicate with those adults to differentiate Reynolds Tobacco's brands from competitors' brands," said Darryl Marsh, senior counsel for R.J. Reynolds.

Philip Morris said the ban would affect its ability to present information about cigarettes with adult smokers. "We're pleased the court agreed that these regulations simply went too far and struck the wrong balance,' said William Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris' vice president and associate general counsel.
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