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U.S. revising cigarette warning labels

Teresa Tanoos's picture
U.S. revising cigarette warning

The US government is abandoning a legal battle to require large warning labels on cigarette packages that contain graphic images conveying the dangers of smoking and encouraging smokers to quit.

As a result, the Food and Drug Administration will have to start all over and create new labels to replace those that included images of diseased lungs and the sewn-up corpse of a smoker, according to a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder obtained by the Associated Press. The letter was sent to House Speaker John Boehner, informing him of the decision.

The government had until Monday to ask the Supreme Court to review an appeals court decision upholding a ruling that the requirement violated First Amendment free speech protections.

"In light of these circumstances, the Solicitor General has determined ... not to seek Supreme Court review of the First Amendment issues at the present time," Holder wrote in his Friday letter.

Holder made the determination after R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., as well as other large tobacco companies, sued to block the requirement that cigarette labels contain warnings as part of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gave the federal government authority to regulate tobacco for the first time.

The warning labels, which were originally scheduled to appear on store shelves last year, would've represented the biggest change to cigarette packaging in the nation in 25 years.

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As is typical in today’s competitive marketplace, tobacco companies increasingly rely on their packaging to attract consumers and build brand loyalty and grab consumers, especially after the government put limits on promoting cigarettes in magazine print ads, television commercials and billboards.

So when the government stepped in to put stronger warning labels on cigarette packs, the tobacco industry filed suit, arguing that the government’s proposed warnings extended beyond factual information into anti-smoking advocacy.

The government countered that the proposed warning labels with more graphic anti-smoking images were factual as it pertained to conveying the dangers of tobacco, which it said is responsible for approximately 443,000 deaths each year in the United States.

Of the nine graphic warnings proposed by the FDA, one includes color images of a man exhaling cigarette smoke through a tracheotomy hole in his throat.
Another includes a plume of cigarette smoke enveloping an infant receiving a mother's kiss. Such images were accompanied by warnings that smoking causes cancer and can harm fetuses, which covered the entire top half of cigarette packs on both the front and back sides and included the stop-smoking hotline number, 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

Today, the FDA released a statement that it would "undertake research to support a new rulemaking consistent with the Tobacco Control Act," but the agency did not provide a timeline for the revised labels.

"Although we pushed forcefully ... (the) ruling against the warning labels won't deter the FDA from seeking an effective and sound way to implement the law," wrote assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Howard Koh, in a blog on Tuesday afternoon.

Warning labels first appeared on cigarette packs in 1965. Current labels on cigarette packs contain a warning that’s been in existence since the mid-1980s, but the warning is in small text and contained within a small box on the package.

SOURCES: The Associated Press, U.S. Food and Drug Administration