A federal judge has blocked a move by the Food and Drug Administration to force tobacco companies to put graphic pictorial warnings on their packaging.
District Judge Richard Leon granted a temporary injunction halting the introduction of the warnings. He said that the rule would likely be found to violate the First Amendment by compelling speech.
The FDA wanted to start introducing the new warnings from next September. Covering the top half of both sides of the pack, the nine different images would show images such as diseased lungs and a dead body on an autopsy table.
Such images are already widespread in Europe and elsewhere. Research has found that health warnings do increase smokers' awareness of the health risks, which makes them more likely to quit.
The FDA was ordered by Congress to impose the pictures when it became responsible for regulating tobacco product in 2009.
A group of tobacco companies sued the FDA in August, arguing that the warnings would force them to present an anti-smoking message, in violation of their right to free speech. They also claimed that it would cost $20 million to redesign the packaging.
The judge agreed that forcing them to carry the images would cause them 'irreparable harm' - although he also pointed out that the amount of money concerned was comparatively small.
And, he said,the fact that the images were mandated by Congress didn't automatically make the move consitutional. He said a full judicial review of the rule's contitutionality would be required.
The ruling has been criticized by anti-smoking campaigners.
"Larger, graphic warning labels have the potential to encourage adults to quit smoking cigarettes and deter children from starting in the first place," says Christopher Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
“The new graphic warning labels, which would cover 50 percent of the front and back of cigarette packs starting in September 2012, are a common sense bipartisan provision in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, historic public health legislation signed into law in 2009 which grants the FDA the authority to regulate the manufacture, sale and marketing of tobacco products.”