A Win For Big Tobacco

A federal judge has just handed the tobacco industry one of its more salient victories in recent years, having decided that the Food and Drug Administration’s plan to require graphic warnings on cigarette packs violated the manufacturers’ right to free speech.

Image of proposed warning courtesy the Food and Drug Adminstration

Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an order that prohibits the FDA from moving ahead until at least 15 months after he has rendered a final decision.

It’s a firm rebuke to the agency, which had trumpeted the warnings as a crucial means of dissuading Americans from smoking.  In June, the FDA shared nine cigarette package prototypes and issued a final rule that ordered manufacturers to comply with the new packaging by Sept. 2012.

A few months later, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Lorillard Tobacco Co., Commonwealth Brands, Liggett Group, and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. sued the agency. And it’s not just big tobacco that is fighting the regulation. Tobacco marketing is big business.

Not surprisingly, the Association of National Advertisers and the American Advertising Federation filed a friend of the court brief in September.  The brief excoriated the government for overreaching.  And, the advertising groups likened the effort to a thinly-veiled propaganda attempt.

“If the government can deputize tobacco companies through their product packaging and advertisements to deliver its message, there is no reason it could not do so for other things — and history shows it will not hesitate to do so,” said the brief.

Judge Leon was persuaded, at least in some way, to weigh these First Amendment arguments. According to the New York Times, in his 29-page opinion (which has not been made available online yet), he lambasted the government’s “obvious anti-smoking agenda!”

But activists and others who fought for many years to find a way to regulate tobacco expressed dismay over his stay.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) called the Judge’s ruling “extremely regrettable.” He says that Congress already worked out all the First Amendment issues “to ensure the FDA could act as it has proposed….”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who in 1998 introduced the first bill to give FDA the power to regulate tobacco products, said that graphic warnings were necessary. “This decision must be appealed so that implementation of the warning label requirement can go forward without delay,” he said, in a statement.

In January, a U.S. District Court Judge in Kentucky upheld FDA’s authority to require warnings in a similar lawsuit. That case is now on appeal.

It may now be years before the legal wrangling is settled.

—Alicia Ault (on Twitter @aliciaault)

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Filed under Cardiovascular Medicine, Clinical Psychiatry News, Family Medicine, Health Policy, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Pulmonary Diseases and Sleep Medicine

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