Big tobacco uses First Amendment to fight introduction of graphic warnings

NEW YORK - US tobacco companies are fighting the introduction of ever more graphic health warnings on packaging by claiming it infringes on their first amendment right to freedom of speech.

A lawsuit has been filed by RJ Reynolds, maker of Camel and Kool cigarettes, along with other tobacco manufacturers in response to new a new tobacco law.

It seeks to protect their first amendment right to "communicate with adult tobacco consumers about their products".

Earlier this year responsibility for regulating tobacco products shifted to the Food & Drug Administration, after years of resistance by the tobacco industry and smokers' rights advocates.

Although the FDA won't be able to ban cigarettes, it now has control over new launches, which will need marketing approval, and it can restrict advertising and promotions to children, and some marketing messages aimed at adults.

This makes provision for the introduction of larger warnings on cigarette packets as well as graphic images of diseased lungs and gums, familiar to smokers in many other countries including the UK.

RJ Reynolds said it was not challenging the FDA's authority, or the law which gave it responsibility over tobacco companies.

However, Martin Holton III, senior vice-president and general counsel for RJ Reynolds, said: "The law contains provisions that severely restrict the few remaining channels we have to communicate with adult tobacco consumers and, in our opinion, cannot be justified on any basis consistent with the demands of the First Amendment."

In the US, the First Amendment stops Congress from passing laws that infringe on the freedom of speech, press and religion.