Several public health groups are weighing in on a lawsuit over graphic cigarette warning labels that include the sewn-up corpse of a smoker, saying the federal government has a strong interest in more effectively informing people about the effects of tobacco and current warnings aren't sufficient.
The groups filed a friend of the court brief with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ahead of a Wednesday hearing in which some of the nation's largest tobacco companies will ask a judge to stop the labels, set to appear on packs next year. A decision on a preliminary injunction could come as soon as October.
The companies, led by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co., sued the Food and Drug Administration last month to block the labels, saying they violate free speech laws, unfairly urge adults to shun their legal products and will cost millions to produce.
Tobacco companies are increasingly relying on their packaging to build brand loyalty and grab consumers. It's one of few advertising levers left to pull since the government has curbed their presence in magazines, billboards and TV.
But the health groups wrote: "It is difficult to imagine any product for which the government has a stronger interest in ensuring effective warnings to consumers. ... Tobacco products are unique among consumer goods: They kill up to one-half of the people who use them as they are intended to be used."
The groups include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Legacy Foundation, the American Lung Association, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and Public Citizen.
"In addition to failing to inform consumers about the risks of tobacco use, the current warnings fail to change consumers' decisionmaking or behavior," they added.
In opposition to the lawsuit, the FDA similarly said that the public interest in conveying the dangers of smoking outweighs the companies' free speech rights. And it said the cost to the companies to incorporate the new graphics is not sufficient to halt the labels.
The federal agency also argued that Congress gave it the authority to require the new labels because existing warnings dating to 1984 were going unnoticed. It says it drew on the advice of various experts to create the labels, which the FDA said are similar to those used in other countries, including Canada.
The companies responded that while the government has authority to mandate them to accurately warn consumers about the dangers of their products plainly and legibly, it "lacks authority to compel manufacturers to replace their product labels and logos with emotionally-charged photographs and messages demanding that adult customers stop using their lawful products."
In June, the FDA approved nine new warning labels that companies are to print on the entire top half of cigarette packs, front and back. The new warnings, each of which includes a number for a stop-smoking hotline, must constitute 20 percent of cigarette advertising, and marketers are to rotate use of the images.
One label depicts a corpse with its chest sewn up and the words "Smoking can kill you." Another shows a healthy pair of lungs beside a yellow and black pair with a warning that smoking causes fatal lung disease.
Joining R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard in the suit are Commonwealth Brands Inc., Liggett Group LLC and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company Inc.
Altria Group Inc., parent company of the nation's largest cigarette maker, Marlboro maker Philip Morris USA, is not a part of the lawsuit.
The tobacco industry's legal challenge could delay the new warning labels for years. That is likely to save cigarette makers millions of dollars in lost sales and increased packaging costs.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.