Any company selling products that addict and eventually kill 400,000 customers annually might well be reluctant to point out the health dangers.
So the federal courts should be mighty skeptical when Big Tobacco screams about its First Amendment rights to keep peddling cigarettes without the oversize health warning labels ordered by Congress this year.
With a free-speech lawsuit filed last week, the nation’s largest tobacco companies challenged marketing restrictions and a mandate from the Food and Drug Administration to cover the top half of cigarette packages with graphic warnings by next year.
The glaring warnings on cigarette packs are among the directives provided under the FDA’s new oversight of tobacco products approved in landmark public health legislation signed by President Obama in June.
Along with the warning labels and limits on tobacco advertising, the FDA won the right to ban toxic substances in cigarettes and restrict levels of addictive nicotine.
But the trade-off was a major victory for tobacco companies like giant Philip Morris U.S.A. that assured nicotine would never be banned. And now the industry can market its products as having the FDA’s stamp of approval, even though smoking-related illnesses will continue to kill thousands.
Even with those gains in hand, there was little doubt that cigarette makers would try to wriggle out from under the FDA advertising and labeling mandates. In fact, it took just a few months.
For decades, tobacco firms hid the devastating health risks of smoking, made bogus safety claims, and pitched smoking to teens.
Despite that history as a rogue industry, the tobacco companies contend in their lawsuit that tobacco products are legal and, therefore, they have a right to market widely and refuse labels that “stigmatize their own products.”
The case likely will reach the Supreme Court, which decisively struck down restrictions on billboard tobacco ads on free speech grounds in 2001. Were the industry’s broad legal challenge to succeed, FDA regulation of tobacco would be virtually meaningless.
Maybe Big Tobacco will be able to hide behind the Bill of Rights, but Americans should have a greater right to public-health efforts designed to safeguard them from the deadly ills of smoking.