An appeals court in Washington has ruled that US government cannot force tobacco firms to put large graphic health warnings on cigarette packages.
It said the government’s plan undermined free speech in America.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had wanted to put nine pictures of dead and diseased smokers to convey the dangers of cigarettes.
However, tobacco companies had argued that the images went beyond factual information and into anti-smoking advocacy.
The ruling comes as a number of other countries have ordered similar pictures to be placed on all cigarette packets.
An appeals court in Washington has ruled that US government cannot force tobacco firms to put large graphic health warnings on cigarette packages
Australia has gone a step further, banning even tobacco company logos from the cartons.
The US Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier lower court ruling in a 2-1 decision.
It said the case raised “novel questions about the scope of the government’s authority to force the manufacturer of a product to go beyond making purely factual and accurate commercial disclosures and undermine its own economic interest”.
The court said that in this case it was “by making every single pack of cigarettes in the country a mini billboard for the government’s anti-smoking message”.
It added that the FDA “has not provided a shred of evidence” that the images would directly advance its policy aimed at reducing the number of smokers in America.
The verdict was welcomed by tobacco companies, with Lorrilard Tobacco’s describing it as “a significant vindication of First Amendment principles”.
The FDA has so far made no public comment on whether it intends to appeal against the ruling in the US Supreme Court.
A US report has found that images of patients on ventilators on cigarette packets help smokers heed the health warnings about smoking.
A study of 200 smokers in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that 83% were able to remember the health warning if it was accompanied by a graphic image.
This compared with a 50% success rate when text-only warnings were viewed.
Using eye-tracking technology, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania measured how long smokers spent viewing each part of a cigarette advertisement containing warning labels.
A US report has found that images of patients on ventilators on cigarette packets help smokers heed the health warnings about smoking
After looking at the advertisement, each participant was asked to write down the warning to test how well they remembered the information.
The faster a smoker’s eyes were drawn to the text in the graphic warning and the longer they viewed the image, the more likely they were to remember the information correctly, the study said.
Dr. Andrew Strasser, lead author of the study and associate professor at the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said the findings were important.
“In addition to showing the value of adding a graphic warning label, this research also provides valuable insight into how the warning labels may be effective, which may serve to create more effective warning labels in the future,” said Dr. Andrew Strasser.
Dr. Andrew Strasser said that he hoped graphic warning labels would help people become better informed about the risks of smoking and lead to a decision to stop.
In the US, health officials ordered that graphic warning labels should appear on cigarette packets from September this year, but tobacco companies are challenging the decision in court.
Australia is currently the only country which has so far agreed to plain packaging and a ban on branding on cigarette packets.