A fight for the hearts and minds - not to mention the lungs - of every American who's lighting up for the first time or thinking of kicking the smoking habit is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a split ruling that accorded Big Tobacco little-deserved deference, a federal appeals court in Washington last week struck down the Food and Drug Administration's bold and sensible plan to require graphic warnings about the dangers of smoking on cigarette packs.
The court majority ruled that the FDA requirement violates tobacco firms' free-speech rights, saying it goes too far in seeking to "browbeat consumers into quitting" smoking. However, a different appeals court earlier ruled the labels are OK, which leaves it to the Supreme Court to resolve this issue. It should put public health ahead of tobacco profits.
Without question, the labels are meant to shock. They would replace long-standing Surgeon General warnings that, despite their candor about health risks, haven't deterred 45 million adult smokers, nor the nearly 1 in 4 older teens who annually join their ranks.
Was U.S. appeals court wrong to bar graphic warning labels on cigarette packs?
Those numbers are why the federal government should pull out the stops in warning consumers that cigarettes and other tobacco products trigger the deaths of 443,000 people each year.
In developing admittedly scary labels showing such things as a man puffing smoke through a tracheotomy hole in his neck, diseased lungs, and even corpses, the FDA is acting at the direction of Congress to regulate tobacco.
Pushback from the deep-pocketed industry has been fierce, with counteroffensives such as a wrongheaded bid to shield cigars from the FDA. But the FDA-approved labels are on par with steps being taken in Europe and Australia to restrict tobacco marketing.
As for the notion that tobacco companies' free-speech rights would be trampled by new labeling, that's laughable. For decades, this industry was free to mislead consumers on tobacco's killing potential - as well as launch cynical pitches to lure teens. From that perspective, the label mandate stands as a legitimate bid for equal time to alert consumers to the true dangers of smoking and chewing tobacco.