Moral Low Ground


U.S. Federal Judge Richard J. Leon Rules Graphic Cigarette Warning Labels Violate Tobacco Companies’ Free Speech Rights

A federal judge has blocked government rules that would have required graphic warning labels on cigarette packs, ruling that such labels would amount to a violation of tobacco companies’ free speech rights.

The Washington Post reports that U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon on Wednesday issued a ruling that upheld a temporary injunction he issued against the labels last November. Some of the nation’s largest cigarette makers, including R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard, sued to block the labels, which they argued violated their First Amendment rights.

Unconscionably unconstitutional.

The Justice Department, which represented the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the suit, argued that the warning labels were effective weapons in the fight against cigarette smoking, which kills hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. The White House called the graphic labels, which featured the corpse of a dead smoker and a man smoking through a tracheotomy hole, “common sense measures that will help prevent children from smoking.”

Most other industrialized nations require similar graphic warning labels on cigarette packets.

In his 19-page ruling, Judge Leon wrote that while the government may force tobacco companies to include warnings that convey facts (as they have been mandated to do since 1966), the new rules requiring graphic warnings were unconstitutional because they were “neither designed to protect the consumer from confusion or deception, nor to increase consumer awareness of smoking risks; rather, they were crafted to evoke a strong emotional response calculated to provoke the viewer to quit or never start smoking.”

Heaven forbid.

“Although an interest in informing or educating the public about the dangers of smoking might be compelling, an interest in simply advocating that the public not purchase a legal product is not,” Judge Leon wrote.

Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer who represents Lorillard, is quoted in the Washington Post as saying Judge Leon’s ruling “makes clear that the government cannot compel speech except in very rare circumstances and certainly cannot do so in ones in which it is telling the seller of a lawful product to urge them not to buy it.”

Cigarettes are indeed a “lawful product,” albeit one which kills an estimated 443,000 Americans each and every year. That’s more than the population of Atlanta, Miami, Cleveland, Minneapolis or New Orleans. About 20% of all U.S. teens and adults is a cigarette smoker, those staggering fatality numbers are likely to remain high for many years to come.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Americans are jailed, sometimes for years, for simple possession of marijuana, a drug that is infinitely safer and less addictive than tobacco. Total number of marijuana deaths each year? Zero.

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