Court nixes graphic cigarette warnings

A federal appeals court struck down a mandate that cigarette cartons display graphic health warnings, opening the door for a Supreme Court ruling on the issue.

The 2-1 decision Friday found that the label requirement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) violates the free-speech rights of tobacco companies.

One of the FDA's proposed warning labels shows a man exhaling cigarette smoke through a hole in his throat.

Judge Janice Rogers Brown said the government did not provide "a shred of evidence" that such images would reduce smoking.

"This case raises novel questions about the scope of the government's authority to force the manufacturer of a product to go beyond making purely factual and accurate commercial disclosures and undermine its own economic interest," Brown wrote for the majority.

She added that the FDA label requirement would make every pack of cigarettes a "'mini billboard' for the government's anti-smoking message."

Brown was nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2005 by President George W. Bush.

Health groups decried the ruling, arguing that graphic warning labels educate consumers, especially teens, about the health risks of smoking.

"Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States," said American Cancer Society CEO John R. Seffrin in a statement.

"Larger, graphic warning labels on cigarette packs have the potential to encourage adults to quit smoking cigarettes and deter children from starting in the first place," he said.

Friday's court decision runs against the conclusion of a Cincinnati-based appeals court earlier this year, meaning the issue could be ripe for the Supreme Court.

The label requirement was released in June 2011 for implementation in September as part of the Tobacco Control Act, passed in 2009. It would have been the first change to cigarette warning labels in the United States in 25 years, according to Reuters.