FRIDAY, Aug. 24 (HealthDay News) -- A U.S. appeals court on Friday upheld a lower court ruling that would block the federal government from requiring tobacco companies to put graphic anti-smoking images on cigarette packaging.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., supported the lower court decision that the requirement violated the right to free speech under the First Amendment, the Associated Press reported.
Friday's decision makes it likely that the issue will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some of the nation's largest tobacco companies filed lawsuits to invalidate the requirement for labels, which include warnings showing the dangers of smoking and encouraging smokers to quit. The companies contended that the proposed warnings went beyond factual information into anti-smoking advocacy, the AP reported.
The labels are a part of the requirements of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed into law in 2009 by President Barack Obama. For the first time, the law gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration significant control over tobacco products.
The proposed label requirement from the FDA -- set to kick in this September -- would have emblazoned cigarette packaging with images of people dying from smoking-related disease, mouth and gum damage linked to smoking and other gruesome portrayals of the harms of smoking.
In February, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, of the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, ruled that the FDA mandate violated the U.S. Constitution's free speech amendment.
Responding to Friday's court decision, Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said, "The Justice Department should quickly appeal today's ruling."
"Tobacco companies are fighting the graphic warnings precisely because they know such warnings are effective," he added in a news release. "The companies continue to spend billions of dollars to play down the health risks of smoking and glamorize tobacco use. These new warnings will tell the truth about how deadly and unglamorous cigarette smoking truly is. Research has found that pack-a-day smokers could be exposed to cigarette health warnings more than 7,000 times per year."
The nine proposed images, designed to fill the top half of all cigarette packs, have stirred controversy since the concept first emerged in 2009.
One image shows a man's face and a lighted cigarette in his hand, with smoke escaping from a hole in his neck -- the result of a tracheotomy. The caption reads, "Cigarettes are addictive." Another image shows a mother holding a baby as smoke swirls about them, with the warning: "Tobacco smoke can harm your children."
A third image depicts a distraught woman with the caption: "Warning: Smoking causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers."
A fourth picture shows a mouth with smoked-stained teeth and an open sore on the lower lip. "Cigarettes cause cancer," the caption reads.
Smoking is the leading cause of early and preventable death in the United States, resulting in some 443,000 fatalities each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and costs almost $200 billion every year in medical costs and lost productivity.
Over the last decade, countries as varied as Canada, Australia, Chile, Brazil, Iran and Singapore, among others, have adopted graphic warnings on tobacco products.
For more on the warning labels and to see the images, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
SOURCES: Associated Press; Aug. 24, 2012, news release, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Washington, D.C.
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