It seems that the companies who have profited handsomely from decades (in some cases, centuries) of selling tobacco addiction and disease believe their First Amendment rights are being violated in the graphic new warning labels that will be required in September 2012 on all cigarette packs.
In 2005, a spokeswoman for tobacco giant Philip Morris met with The State Journal-Register editorial board as the company made a national push for state governments to enact stricter measures against cigarette counterfeiting.
While the meeting’s focus wasn’t the health hazards of smoking per se, she opened with a statement that was, considering the source, disarming in its candor: “Cigarettes are the only the product in America that, used properly, will kill you.”
We thought back to that meeting this week as five cigarette manufacturers in America filed one of the most galling federal lawsuits we’ve witnessed in some time. It seems that the companies who have profited handsomely from decades (in some cases, centuries) of selling tobacco addiction and disease believe their First Amendment rights are being violated in the graphic new warning labels that will be required in September 2012 on all cigarette packs.
We noted with interest that Philip Morris is the lone member of Big Tobacco that is not party to this suit. To the extent that we’ll ever extend a measure of good will to a tobacco company, we do so here.
We’re still adjusting to the concept of political speech by corporations being protected by the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court ruled in January 2010.
But we’re not buying the argument of R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Commonwealth Brands Inc., Liggett Group LLC and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company Inc. that the new warnings violate their free speech rights by forcing them to advance a smoking cessation message.
“Never before in the United States have producers of a lawful product been required to use their own packaging and advertising to convey an emotionally-charged government message urging adult consumers to shun their products,” the companies write in their suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Washington, D.C.
Well, that may be true. But as Philip Morris’ own representative noted to us six years ago, never before has the United States allowed a consumer product to remain on the market that, used as directed, will kill its user.
The companies complain that the images on the new warnings — which include a diseased lung, a cadaver, a cancer-ravaged mouth and smoke being blown through a tracheostomoy opening — and the inclusion of a smoking cessation hot line number amount to government-forced advocacy against their product, rather than a mere warning about smoking.
These, by the way, are the same companies that benefited from years of advertising that actually said cigarettes were good for you even as they hid scientific evidence to the contrary.
Sorry, Big Tobacco (minus Philip Morris), but you’re in a league all your own, and the new warning labels are a reasonable compromise that recognizes both the health hazards of smoking and the impossibility of cigarette prohibition.
Asbestos and lead paint also were popular products in their day. Effective, too. But they could be readily replaced by nonhazardous products, and were banned. They didn’t have millions of addicted users clamoring for their return.
Tobacco is different. We hope the federal courts, up to the Supreme Court if necessary, recognize this.