Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Assessing Cigarettes’ Right to Free Speech

• August 30, 2011 • 2:00 PM

How far can federal regulators go in cramming ugly — if accurate — messages onto packs of cigarettes over the objections of the tobacco companies that sell them?

Four major tobacco companies filed a lawsuit in federal court earlier this month to fight the Food and Drug Administration’s infamous new cigarette warning labels — those half-pack, graphic images of rotting lungs and teeth, dead bodies and presumed smokers on respiratory machines. Anyone who’s looked at the images — due to appear on packs in September 2012 — couldn’t be surprised that Big Tobacco balked.

The companies are arguing that the new warnings violate their First Amendment rights to, in essence, not be forced to carry gross pictures designed to discourage sales on their products.

That logic, especially in a post-Citizens United world, sounds ripe for a headline from The Onion: Cigarettes have free-speech rights, too. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids shrugged off the suit, calling it “frivolous.”

First Amendment scholars, though, say this legal battle has been years in the making and raises real questions about what happens when the government’s interest in promoting public health collides with the Constitution.

“This is anything but frivolous,” said Richard Kaplar, a commercial speech expert with the Media Institute. “Quite the contrary.”

Considerable social science and psychology research has gone into determining whether such labels are effective and how best to prod people into making smart decisions for their health. And many countries outside the U.S., such as Canada, have opted for even more gross warnings that they say have curbed smoking. But all of those findings are moot if the Supreme Court strikes down the whole graphic-labeling strategy.

“To me, it’s just a classic case of compelled speech and government overregulation, and I think it does infringe on tobacco companies’ First Amendment rights, which may not be a popular opinion,” said David Hudson, a scholar with the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. “The sheer size of these ads, and the graphic nature of them, if you think about it, it’s an advertiser being forced to put ‘don’t buy this product’ on the product.”

That tobacco companies have First Amendment rights is not in question. “Commercial speech,” or advertising copy, however, has long been a second-class citizen in the First Amendment family.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

“Historically, it’s been seen to somehow be of lesser value because it involves commercial transactions,” Kaplar said. “It was thought that if you’re just talking about ‘I’m trying to sell you something,’ that’s not as important as if we’re having a discussion about democracy, or this candidate or that candidate, the big issues of the day.”

And so government regulation of commercial speech is measured against a four-part test that dates to a 1980 Supreme Court case, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York. The test poses four questions: Is the speech lawful, truthful and not misleading? Does the government have a substantial interest in regulating it? Does the regulation directly advance the government’s interest? And is the regulation a narrowly tailored and reasonable fit for doing that?

The fight over the FDA’s cigarette labels could touch on all four. Tobacco companies will certainly argue that their existing packaging is lawful and truthful. But, said Robert O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Speech, the government could counter that it’s misleading not to show people shocking images of what cigarettes can do to your lungs.

The government will also undoubtedly argue that it has a substantial interest in protecting public health (and paying for the health care costs of people who wind up with lung cancer). But the last two questions are trickier. Will these images actually discourage smoking and enhance public health, as the government hopes they will? Research on this question is mixed. And even if the images were effective, couldn’t the government warn people about cigarettes with a less drastic tool — like, say, the messages already in use?

[class name="dont_print_this"]Warning Messages on Cigarette Packs[/class]

This last point is the most compelling for armchair legal scholars: Is there a constitutional line to be drawn somewhere between a text-based surgeon general’s warning and a full-color photo of a smoking man with a hole in his throat?

“That’s a fascinating distinction,” O’Neil said. “When this issue gets into court, I’m sure there will be some very strong arguments on both sides, because it basically is open-ended.”

Still, he and Kaplar both come down alongside Hudson: The Tobacco companies are probably in the right here. Kaplar believes that they willingly agreed to some restrictions on their rights to keep the peace — and continue selling their products — in the wake of the 1998 “Master Settlement Agreement” with the states. That settlement did away with cartoon pitchmen like Joe the Camel and other ad tactics that critics said targeted children.

These graphic new labels, though, have upended that balance.

“To force someone to put that on their product is really going into a new territory, across a line that hasn’t been crossed before,” Kaplar said. “Probably the government thought they could get away with it, that maybe tobacco companies wouldn’t put up much of a fight since they’ve been relatively complacent the last several years.”

But as fascinating as this case is, O’Neil doesn’t expect the outcome to impact many other government health campaigns. In many ways, tobacco has always been unique.

“Regulating the speed at which an automobile can be driven, that’s handled by speed limits,” O’Neil said. “Or if you’re worried about sugar content in children’s cereal, regulate the sugar content.”

Tobacco, though — as long as it remains a legal product — doesn’t really have such an analogous government solution.

“I’ve thought a lot about the alternative,” O’Neil said, “and I have not really ever been able to come up with anything.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 23 • 8:00 AM

Medicare: Your New Long-Term Care Provider

A 2013 court ruling has paved the way for an incredible, costly expansion of home health care by removing a critical lever the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had to control who receives services, and for how long.


September 23 • 6:22 AM

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.


September 23 • 6:00 AM

The Heist: How Visitors Stole a National Monument

Fossil Cycad National Monument was home to one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids—until visitors carried them all away.


September 23 • 4:00 AM

Fifty Shades of Meh

New research refutes the notion that reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy strongly impacts women’s sexual behavior.


September 23 • 2:00 AM

The Portlandia Paradox

Oregon’s largest city is full of overeducated and underemployed young people.


September 22 • 4:00 PM

The Overly Harsh and Out-of-Date Law That’s So Difficult on Debtors

A 1968 federal law allows collectors to take 25 percent of debtors’ wages, or every penny in their bank accounts.


September 22 • 2:00 PM

NFL Players Are More Law Abiding Than Average Men

According to records kept by USA Today, 2.53 percent of players are arrested in any given year.


September 22 • 12:00 PM

Freaking Out About Outliers: When the Polls Are Way Off

The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it’s actually a very reliable process—most of the time.


September 22 • 10:00 AM

The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.


September 22 • 9:54 AM

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.


September 22 • 8:00 AM

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.


September 22 • 6:00 AM

Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.


September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



Follow us


On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.