An appeals court in Washington ruled this week that the U.S. government cannot force tobacco companies to put graphic logos on cigarette packages. The ruling was based on the argument that the graphic image requirement would undermine free speech in the United States.
The BBC notes that the Food and Drug Administration wanted to require all cigarette companies to include nine different images of unhealthy smokers on cigarette packaging in order to discourage people from smoking and remind smokers of the dangers of the habit. Big tobacco fired back saying that such a policy would tread on free speech and would basically act as a governmental anti-smoking campaign, thereby counteracting the business practices of tobacco companies.
In the wake of the decision, Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the Washington D.C. appeals court that heard the case wrote:
This 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 mini billboard’ for the government’s anti-smoking message.
Judge Brown also concluded that there is no substantial evidence to prove that including such imagery on packages has produced any significant reduction in the number of smokers. These rulings were good news to the five cigarette companies who had complained about the proposed policy.
NBC notes that this particular legal battle could potentially continue into the coming months. A similar case in another U.S. court in March contradicted this ruling, which means there is a very distinct possibility of the case heading to the Supreme Court. Reuters notes that advocates for anti-tobacco campaigns have no intentions of stopping the fight against big tobacco companies. Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said, “Today’s ruling is wrong on the science and law, and it is by no means the final word on the new cigarette warnings.”
The United States’ block on graphic images directly counters a court ruling in Australia this month that mandated all cigarette packaging has to be uniform and include graphic images and warnings. The same arguments about free speech and business practices cropped up in the Australian case. The highest court in Australia argued that the packaging has the potential to decrease the number of smokers in the country and set a tough precedent against the use of the tobacco companies’ caustic product.
Although not as stringent in the United States, a law passed back in 2009 does give the FDA the power to regulate labels on cigarette packages. The FDA has mandated that warning labels must take up the top 50 percent of the package. New health warnings will be included on packaging starting next month in an effort to avert smokers from using the product.
Strangely, imagery seems to be the most controversial aspect of the cigarette packaging wars, both in the United States and in countries like Australia and the UK. For years the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning has graced all cartons of cigarettes in the United States but, somehow, adding graphic images has riled the big tobacco companies and pushed them to take a stand against the measure. It makes me wonder if the imagery would actually have a bigger effect on the number of smokers in the United States than Judge Brown wants to admit. Although there is no substantive research that proves the imagery will work to decrease the smoking habit, the debate has indeed bathed the power of advertising and free speech in a new light.
Photo Credit: Kelly Hau