Warning: Smoking Can Kill You

9 Sep

<nyt_headline version=”1.0″ type=” “>‘Warning: Smoking Can Kill You’


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Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Around 400,000 people die each year from smoking, which cuts lives short on average about 13 years. And that does not include the 50,000 who die from exposure to secondhand smoke or the 8.6 million whose illnesses are caused by smoking.

Congress took note of these facts when it passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, which requires large, graphic warnings on cigarette packages about cancer, strokes and other deadly diseases caused by smoking. The new warnings were carefully chosen to replace text-only warnings that had become ineffective — “unnoticed and stale,” the Institute of Medicine reported — in the face of the tobacco companies’ long history of deceptive advertising.

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in a 2-to-1 ruling last week, struck down the new warnings on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment rights of the tobacco companies. It ruled that the government failed to provide evidence that the warnings would reduce smoking rates, and therefore could not justify what it called a restraint on corporate free speech.

But this view ignores that these companies have spent billions of dollars over many decades misleading consumers about smoking’s terrible consequences, and that the warnings require companies to disclose accurate information. As Judge Judith Rogers noted in dissent, there is good evidence that bolder warnings will “alleviate” some of the harm.

“The government has an interest of paramount importance in effectively conveying information about the health risks of smoking to adolescent would-be smokers and other consumers,” she said, and “nothing in the Supreme Court’s commercial speech precedent would restrict the government” from doing that with warnings.

In March, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in a related case, disagreed with the majority in the District of Columbia Circuit, upholding the new warnings. There is now an important conflict to resolve in the federal circuits about the labeling requirement. The government should seek review of this ruling, and either the full District of Columbia court or the Supreme Court should uphold the law.




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