National Association of Attorneys General

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U.S. Supreme Court Empowers FDA to Graphically Depict Tobacco's Toll

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on April 22 it will not hear the tobacco industry's challenge to the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act's (Tobacco Control Act) provision to include graphic warning labels on cigarette packages. The decision to reject the appeal opens the door to potential life-saving measures for smokers and potential new young smokers in America. Most importantly, it sends a clear message that public health prevails over corporate interests.

The Tobacco Control Act was an unprecedented law that addressed the number-one cause of preventable death in the United States, mandating the regulation of tobacco by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The historic law authorized bold provisions such as graphic warning labels, which give current smokers evidence-based tools to help them quit for good. Graphic warnings depict the consequences of tobacco use which can help young people make more informed decisions about lighting up. Research conducted in countries that have already implemented graphic warnings, such as Canada and Australia, shows that bold, graphic labels can have a positive impact on public health. Many smokers in those countries credit the warnings with motivating them to quit and/or helping them stay smoke-free.

Not surprisingly, the tobacco industry challenged the most significant changes made to cigarette labels in 25 years. In the appeal that was rejected, tobacco companies argued that the law requiring tobacco companies to include graphic warnings was a constitutional violation of the companies' First Amendment Rights. In a separate case, the companies have challenged the specific content in the proposed graphic warning labels which would have included pictures of diseased lungs and dead bodies. While the federal government has decided not to appeal the latter case, the ruling today opens the door for the FDA to create new content for graphic warnings, and we urge it to quickly do so.

Too many years have passed since the FDA proposed the first pictorial graphic warning labels, and no time should be wasted because millions of lives are at stake. While the tobacco industry will no doubt continue to defend its marketing practices of deadly products at every turn, Americans can rest assured that Legacy along with the community of public health advocates are collectively working to protect and save lives.

Article reprinted with permission, American Legacy Foundation, Legacy e-News, April 2013

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Josh Shapiro was elected attorney general of Pennsylvania in November 2016.