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Cigarettes and free speech: Judge blocks graphic smoking warnings

A federal judge has put a temporary block on new graphic warning labels for cigarette packages as a case concerning the constitutionality of requiring the labels proceeds.

The new labels, which would cover the top half of a cigarette box and include the number to a smoking-cessation hotline, marked the first dramatic anti-smoking move made since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was given new powers to regulate tobacco products, as health writer Melissa Healy has explained.

Among other graphic images, the labels show a man blowing smoke out of a tracheotomy hole in his neck, a pair of diseased lungs and a dead man with autopsy staples in his chest.

PHOTOS: FDA’s new warning labels for cigarettes

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Some images were even too graphic to be chosen, such as a portrait of Barb Tarbox, a 42-year-old woman who died of lung cancer in 2003. (Read the full story here.)

Five of the six largest tobacco companies sued the FDA on free-speech grounds and asked for a preliminary injunction to block implementation of the images, set for fall of 2012. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled in their favor Monday.

“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 court documents, Associated Press reported.

“Laws passed by Congress and signed into law in 1965, 1969 and 1984 all required warning labels to appear on cigarette packaging,” Melissa Healy wrote earlier on Booster Shots. “That’s how the message ‘Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health’ came to be printed down the side of the package.”

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But tobacco companies didn’t protest those warnings as free-speech violations — perhaps because they were shown to have no effect on consumers. The new labels, on the other hand, could be graphic enough to leave a lasting impression.

“So when the health warnings are ineffective, they’re a nuisance,” Healy continued. “If they draw an ‘emotional response from viewers’ — say, the sort of emotional response that a 1991 JAMA article found the cartoon image of Joe Camel had on children (they were more likely to recognize Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone) — they’re ‘compelled speech.’ ”

Think the smoking labels are a fair warning, or have no place on a cigarette box? Post your thoughts below.

PHOTOS: FDA’s new warning labels for cigarettes

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Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.


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