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Tobacco companies suing fed over graphic warnings

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

U.S. tobacco companies are filing a suit against the federal government to put a stop against a law requiring them to print graphic warning labels on cigarette boxes that include the sewn-up corpse of a smoker and pictures of diseased lungs. They say it unfairly urges adults to shun their own, legal products and will cost millions to produce.

Four of the five largest U.S. tobacco companies sued the government Tuesday, saying the warnings violate their free speech rights. The companies, led by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Lorillard Tobacco Co., said the warnings no longer simply convey facts to allow people to make a decision on whether to smoke. They instead force them, the makers of the purportedly evil product, to put government anti-smoking advocacy more prominently on their packs than their own brands.

"Never before in the United States have producers of a lawful product been required to use their own packaging and advertising to convey an emotionally-charged government message urging adult consumers to shun their products," the companies wrote in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington.

The FDA labels are indeed graphic and onerous. They include such images as a healthy pair of lungs beside a yellow and black pair with a warning that smoking causes fatal lung disease, or a picture of a corpse with its chest sewed up and the words: "Smoking can kill you."

The FDA approved nine such new warnings to rotate on cigarette packs. They are supposed to be printed on the entire top half, front and back, of the packaging. The new warnings also must constitute 20 percent of any cigarette advertising. And finally, they must also all include a number for a stop-smoking hotline.

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Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called them frank and honest warnings about the dangers of smoking.

Joining R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard in the suit are Commonwealth Brands Inc., Liggett Group LLC and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company Inc. Altria Group Inc., parent company of the nation's largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, is not a part of the lawsuit.

There is no question that smoking is a nasty habit and that the ultra-powerful tobacco companies are big, bad and very fat for-profit corporations who do not deserve an iota of sympathy. As an adult child of a parent who smoked, I can attest to the iniquities and nastiness of the habit, not just for the smoker, but for his long-suffering family. But.

But the companies really have a point. A very common-sense point. Why should they – they themselves – be required to print graphic anti-smoking images on their products? Why not the alcohol industry? Why not the fast-food industry? Should potato chips and soda come with images of deceased, post-autopsied obese individuals? How about printing images of deformed fetuses or cirrhotic livers on beer cans and wine bottles?

People should absolutely be educated on the dangers of smoking – or overeating, or drinking alcoholic beverages. The question is, is this an effective way to do so? Maximizing an emotional but uninformed response by displaying controversial and often manipulated images will most likely stoke titters and jeers from the under-aged while go virtually ignored by the smokers.

Martin L. Holton III, executive vice president and general counsel for R.J. Reynolds, also notes that this regulation completely disregards core constitutional principles of free speech, and he absolutely has a point – even though I doubt he and I will be sitting to a charming dinner together in this lifetime. I mean, this same federal government has ruled that banning minors from buying or renting violent video games violates their First Amendment right to free speech.

If the videogame industry can make a legitimate case for promoting violence among minors as a case of free speech, surely the tobacco industry should be allowed to tout its product as equally enjoyable? And at least they don’t fight for minors’ rights to pollute their lungs.