U.S. Federal Issues

U.S. Requires Bold New Cigarette Warnings

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Industry fights change to protect profits

Large, graphic cigarette warnings are required by the landmark 2009 law that gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products.

Under the bipartisan law, the new warnings must cover the top half of the front and back of cigarette packs and 20 percent of advertisements.

In June 2011, the FDA unveiled nine final warnings, which under the law are supposed to be placed on all cigarette packs and ads in the United States starting in September 2012.

The evidence that warning labels work is solid and extensive. Studies around the world have shown that large, pictorial warnings 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. Because of this evidence, at least 43 other countries now require large, graphic cigarette warnings.

In contrast, the current U.S. warnings, which haven't been updated since 1984, have grown stale and ineffective.  The Institute of Medicine has called them "woefully deficient."

Despite the strong scientific evidence and congressional mandate behind the graphic warnings, tobacco companies have filed two lawsuits challenging them.  Two federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, have upheld them. In its March 2012 ruling, the Sixth Circuit court found that the required warning labels "are reasonably related to the government's interest in preventing consumer deception and are therefore constitutional."

The Sixth Circuit decision upheld an earlier ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. McKinley.  “The government's message is objective and has not been controversial for decades," McKinley wrote in his January 2010 decision.

Ruling on a different lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon blocked the warning labels from going forward in a February 2012 decision. In August 2012, the a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld that ruling and struck down the warning labels. The government has asked the full court to rehear the case. The rulings striking down the warning labels are wrong on the science and wrong on the law.

It is obvious why tobacco companies are seeking to block the new warnings.  They continue to spend billions of dollars to play down the health risks of smoking and glamorize tobacco use. These new warnings will tell the truth about how deadly and unglamorous cigarette smoking truly is.