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Federal appeals court hears arguments on tobacco warning labels

A panel of judges for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] heard oral arguments on Tuesday over the constitutionality of new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [official website] regulations [text] requiring cigarette packaging and advertisements to display more prominent graphic health warning labels [materials]. A federal judge issued a permanent injunction [JURIST report] last month prohibiting the warnings as unconstitutional. The new requirements of graphic image and textual warning labels were imposed by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (FSPTCA) [HR 1256 text]. The suit was filed by the RJ Reynolds Co [corporate website], the manufacturer of several popular cigarette brands, on the basis that the new regulations violate their First Amendment rights and burden their right to commercial speech by compelling placement of the new warning labels on the top 50 and bottom 20 percent of all packaging and advertisements. The panel asked [AP report] a number of questions about the case. They asked the FDA to describe the appropriate limits for the type of messages that could be compelled by the government, and whether those warnings could be placed on any legal product. They also asked if the tobacco companies were challenging the factual veracity of the warning labels.

In March, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled [JURIST report] that the graphic cigarette label warnings were constitutional, holding that the warnings provide undisputed factual information about the health risks of using tobacco products. US President Barack Obama [official website] signed [JURIST report] the FSPTCA into law in 2009, granting the FDA certain authority to regulate manufactured tobacco products. The legislation heightens warning-label requirements, prohibits marketing "light cigarettes" as a healthier alternative and allows for the regulation of cigarette ingredients. The proposed implementation of new tobacco warning labels has also drawn criticism abroad. In Australia, Philip Morris has filed a complaint [JURIST report] to block new graphic warning label requirements [AUS Health Dept. backgrounder] recently enacted in that country.

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