Judge sides with Big Tobacco, blocks FDA labels

Required health warnings for cigarette packages. / FDA

In the heat of a Big Tobacco/FDA lawsuit, one federal judge thinks you should be able to have your cigarettes and smoke them too--without an ominous black lung staring back at you on the carton.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said not only is it likely Big Tobacco will win their free speech lawsuit against the FDA's graphic cigarette labels, he also blocked the federal requirement until the conclusion of the suit--which could take years.

The Associated Press reports Leon ruled the nine images approved by the FDA in June "go beyond conveying the facts about the health risks of smoking or go beyond that into advocacy " a critical distinction in a case over free speech."

"It is abundantly clear from viewing these images that the emotional response they were crafted to induce is calculated to provoke the viewer to quit, or never to start smoking " an objective wholly apart from disseminating purely factual and uncontroversial information," Leon wrote in his 29-page opinion.

From images of a tracheotomy hole and diseased lungs to a baby surrounded by smoke, the judge said the size of the labels--which would take up 20 percent of the package--make them "mini-billboards" for the agency's "obvious anti-smoking agenda."

"Studies around the world and evidence presented to the FDA have repeatedly shown that large, graphic warnings, like those adopted by the FDA, are most effective at informing consumers about the health risks of smoking, discouraging children and other nonsmokers from starting to smoke, and motivating smokers to quit," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in a statement. "Because of that evidence, at least 43 other countries now require large, graphic cigarette warnings."

The tobacco companies argue they rely on cigarette packaging to distinguish themselves from other brands and attract new smokers. With multiple government advertising restrictions already on their products, they say the graphic labels would cost them millions in sales.

Companies like R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. banded together to sue the FDA in August.

"Today's ruling reaffirms fundamental First Amendment principles by rejecting the notion that the government may require those who sell lawful products to adults to urge current and prospective purchasers not to purchase those products," Lorillard attorney Floyd Abrams said in a statement.

Was the FDA violating Big Tobacco's freedom of speech, or merely trying to save more lives? How involved should the government be with our health?

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)