Federal Judge Tosses Tobacco Cos.' Suit Against Providence
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A lawsuit brought forth by tobacco companies against the city of Providence and its ordinances governing tobacco sales has hit a dead end. Earlier this week, a federal judge threw out the legal action, rejecting the argument that the city's new rules violate the tobacco industry's right to free speech.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi granted the city's request to dismiss the lawsuit brought by several industry leaders and associations, according to the Associated Press.
"While we expect an appeal from big tobacco, this is an important step toward a healthier city. I hope today's ruling inspires other communities to follow our lead and take a stand," Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said, following the ruling.
As CSNews Online previously reported, the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) and the Cigar Association of America (CAA), along with Lorillard Tobacco Co., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., American Snuff Co., Philip Morris USA Inc., U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Manufacturing Co. LLC, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Brands Inc. and John Middleton Co., filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. Federal District Court in Rhode Island seeking a temporary restraining order, and preliminary and permanent injunctions against the enforcement of two tobacco-related ordinances adopted on Jan. 5 by the Providence City Council.
The first measure addressed in the suit bans adult consumers from redeeming tobacco product coupons and also prohibits retailers from offering certain promotionally priced tobacco products, such as "buy-one, get-one free" offers. The second measure included in the suit bans the sale of virtually all flavored cigars, smokeless tobacco and pipe tobacco products in the city, according to NATO. Both of these ordinances are scheduled to take effect March 1.
Among other things, the lawsuit sought a judgment declaring:
- The ban on coupons and promotionally priced tobacco products, as well as the prohibition on the sale of flavored tobacco products, are an unconstitutional violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Rhode Island Constitution;
- The ordinances are pre-empted by federal laws regulating tobacco products; and
- The ordinances are void because the city failed to give the mandatory 48-hour public notice of the meeting at which the ordinances were adopted.
With these two ordinances, Providence will become only the second city in the United States — behind New York City — to go this far in regards to tobacco sales, said Anthony F. Cottone, a lawyer for the city. The New York City rules are facing their own challenge in a federal appeals court, the Associated Press reported.
The judge found that the industry's rights were not violated because the ordinances do not ban advertising about the products. Instead, they prevent tobacco companies and stores from accepting coupons or other discount deals for them, and prevent stores from selling flavored tobacco products, Lisi said.
"The plaintiffs are free to describe their products as having or producing a characterizing flavor," the judge wrote. "They are, however, precluded from selling flavored tobacco products in Providence."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned flavored cigarettes in 2009.
The city had agreed not to enforce the ordinances until after a judge's ruling. Taveras' office said the city will review the decision and decide when to begin enforcing the new ordinances.