Though it drew relatively little attention last week, a federal court hearing to determine whether a government agency can compel tobacco companies to put graphic and explicit warnings about the effects of tobacco use on cigarette packs is a matter of vital public interest. There are constitutional, health and economic issues involved in the case, but no simple answers to the complex issues involved.
Several tobacco companies are seeking an injunction that would prevent the Food and Drug Administration from enforcing a law that requires companies to put the graphic warnings on packaging starting next fall. Government officials oppose the request, arguing that the warning labels are necessary to explain the dangers of smoking and to reduce the toll of tobacco-related deaths. The judge in the case hopes to issue a decision by the end of October.
The jurist has much to consider. The FDA agrees the labels -- which include images of a sewn-up corpse of a smoker, an individual blowing smoke through a tracheotomy hole and smoke in an infant's face -- are provocative. When the images to be replicated on the labels were revealed publicly, they generated considerable disgust, and even sickened some individuals. That's part of the goal, the FDA and other public health advocates admit.
A public increasingly complacent about the dangers of tobacco use, they argue, needs new reminders about a risky product. Cigarette company lawyers respond by saying current warnings are sufficient, that knowledge about tobacco dangers already are well known and that requiring the new warning labels contravenes the First Amendment rights of the tobacco firms by requiring them to use their packaging to promote a government mandate that is inimical to their interest. Those are interesting arguments. They deserve fair and careful consideration, but they should be rejected.
The government has a responsibility to protect those it serves from harm. The relationship between tobacco use and often deadly illness is well established. Thus, if the FDA can implement a system that helps to reduce tobacco use and the number of deaths associated with it, the agency is fulfilling the mandate to protect those it serves.
U.S. Public health officials calculate that about a fifth of the nation's deaths each year -- about 440,000 -- are related to the use of smoking products. Smoking-related health issues consume a significant portion of health-care dollars -- much of it funded by government each year, as well. Any action that might reduce mortality and illness should be pursued. The tobacco companies' request for an injunction to halt the labeling requirement is understandable, but that does not make it right. The court should deny the request. The nation will be a healthier one in the future if it does so.