FDA Gives Up Fight on Cigarette Labels

On March 19, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would abandon its crusade to require big tobacco companies to place large, graphic warning labels on their products. The move came as the agency faced a court-imposed deadline and heavy opposition from tobacco lobbyists.

Back in 2011, the FDA announced that it would force tobacco manufacturers to make cigarette packages reflect the devastating health impacts of the products they contained. The suggested labels would include pictures of diseased lungs, the body of a dead smoker and an image of a man smoking through his tracheotomy hole. The agency also wanted cigarette packages to be printed with the number for the stop-smoking hotline, 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

The agency, however, is not giving up the battle entirely; the FDA said it will, “undertake research to support a new rule (that will be) consistent with the Tobacco Control Act,” which is the 2009 law that requires the agency to reduce the annual number of deaths attributable to smoking and other tobacco uses. That figure is currently estimated to be 440,000.

When the FDA announced its new label requirements in 2011, the country’s largest cigarette makers sued the agency, saying their First Amendment rights were being violated. In February 2012 Judge Richard J. Leon ruled in favor of the tobacco companies.

In announcing its decision to give up this battle, the Justice Department declined to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court; a publicly released letter said, “In these circumstances, the Solicitor General has determined, after consultation with [the Department of Health and Human Services] and FDA, not to seek Supreme Court review of the First Amendment issues at the present time.”

While the court’s decision may protect big tobacco’s right to free speech, it will, unfortunately, fail to protect the public from the deadly effects of smoking. Warnings first appeared on cigarette packs in the 60s, and, for years, smoking rates fell. Since 2004, however, the existing warning labels seem to have stopped working, as the smoking rate has stayed steady at about 45 million adult American smokers.

Once again, when it comes to public safety, the U.S. has fallen behind the rest of the world. Dozens of other countries already mandate graphic cigarette warning labels like those the FDA wanted; a World Health Organization (WHO) survey has found that they are more effective than text-only labels at deterring smoking.

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