On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that new regulations regarding labeling on cigarettes were unconstitutional. According to these new regulations, originally scheduled to be implemented this year but delayed due to a preliminary injunction issued in 2011, cigarette labels were to have “images of rotting teeth, diseased lungs and other images intended to illustrate the dangers of smoking.”
According to the judge, “The government has failed to carry both its burden of demonstrating a compelling interest and its burden of demonstrating that the rule is narrowly tailored to achieve a constitutionally permissible form of compelled commercial speech." While Judge Leon agreed that educating consumers on the dangers of a product was a compelling interest, he ruled that these regulations served more to convince consumers not to purchase a product, an interest which he stated was not compelling at all.
It was also ruled that the government has other tools at its disposal to achieve the same purported goal. Other options suggested by the judge include raising cigarette taxes (assuming that higher prices will in fact discourage consumption) and factual statements on cigarette packaging (more than just the current Surgeon General Warnings).
If the labeling requirements do go into effect (the government is expected to appeal this ruling), the required images would cover the top half of the front and back of a cigarette package. These images would also be required to cover the top twenty percent of any cigarette advertising in print. In considering these requirements, Judge Leon stated that “the warning labels were too big to pass constitutional muster.”
Even as a non-smoker, these regulations certainly appear to be overreaching and simply improper. The government must respect First Amendment rights for commercial speech just as they do for individual speech. And, as is the case in regulating individual speech, the government must be wary and not overreach when regulating commercial speech. Adopting regulations that can be seen as nothing more than an attempt to scare consumers from purchasing cigarettes does not in any way fall under proper regulation of free speech.
Judge Leon is absolutely correct in that the government has other, less overreaching, ways to achieve the same goals. For years, cigarette packaging has been required to carry Surgeon General Warnings. Smokers have been exposed to education through government and non-government outlets warning them, sometimes in the graphic detail proposed by these regulations.
The government does have a responsibility to warn the public of potential side effects of drugs, drugs including tobacco. However, once this warning is provided, it is up to the consumer to make a conscious decision as to whether they wish to assume the risks. It is not the government’s duty to use scare tactics to affect the consumption of these products.
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