Smokers-rights groups applaud decision to block pictures on cigarette packs

The last time cigarette warning labels got a makeover was more than 25 years ago, but they will be unchanged for at least a little while longer.

A federal judge sided on Monday with tobacco companies and has temporarily blocked the Food and Drug Administration’s attempt to slap graphic images on cigarette packs.

U.S District judge Richard Leon ruled that tobacco companies, who are suing the government over the move, do not have to put the images on their packages until 15 months after a suit seeking to block the move is adjudicated. He cited First Amendment ground.

Leon found that the nine images put forward by the FDA last June went beyond sharing factual information and veered into advocacy.

The images, deemed too shocking, include a man exhaling cigarette smoke through a hole in his throat and a close-up picture of autopsy staples in a dead man’s chest.

“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 his 29-page opinion.

The cigarette manufacturers that are suing the FDA are R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Lorillard Tobacco Co., Commonwealth Brands Inc., Liggett Group and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. They defend that their products have been wearing medical warnings for more than 45 years, during which no legal challenge has been filed.

Leon’s decision came as a welcome surprise to members of groups that advocate for individual rights for smokers.

According to George Koodray, president of the Metropolitan Society, a private cigar club located in Fairfield, New Jersey, tobacco companies have been unfairly targeted among other consumer goods.

“It is a legal product, it generates a tremendous amount of revenue for the government and the health risks are well-known,” Koodray said.

Koodray questioned whether all dangerous practices received the same attention.

“I drive a motorcycle, and I know it’s dangerous, but you don’t see pictures of wrecks on new motorcycles or new cars when you go to buy one,” Koodray said.

Koodray applauded the judge’s decision, and said it came as good news among a recent avalanche of negative attention.

The decision was also welcomed among tobacco store owners in Chicago.

Kevin Levi, owner of Iwan Ries & Co., a family-owned tobacco store, said he was surprised to see a judge “flying in the face of conventional ideas.”

Levi, who saw the images, said they were the most shocking he has ever encountered, but does not believe smokers would buying cigarettes because of them.

“Some of them were pretty nasty,” Levi said. “But I could almost see smokers trying to collect them in case they were to change back.”

Arthur Touchot

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