At the headquarters of Reynolds American (parent of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco) in North Carolina and the Virginia headquarters of Altria (parent of Philip Morris USA) time is apparently running backwards. The two companies just filed a lawsuit in DC federal court that reads like it was written in 1995, not 2015.
The target of the suit (15-CV-00544) is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which the companies apparently have forgotten was given authority by Congress in 2009 to regulate tobacco marketing, including the introduction of new products. That law came after years of vociferous opposition by Big Tobacco.
What has the companies up in arms is an FDA guidance document issued in March concerning review requirements for packaging changes. The agency takes the position that certain modifications in background color, logo and descriptors can be significant enough to trigger the stricter rules regarding new products.
Presenting themselves as victims of government overreach, the companies argue that their First Amendment rights are being violated: “FDA’s unlawful actions already have harmed Plaintiffs and threaten greater harms in the future by restricting Plaintiffs’ ability to modify their product labels without FDA preauthorization and by chilling and restricting protected speech.”
Although the case does not involve the federal warning labels that have been required for decades, it makes the puzzling argument that the FDA guidelines also violate the industry’s Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
While it is not unusual for big business to assert free speech rights to oppose regulations, this position is particularly galling when it comes from the tobacco industry. These are the companies, after all, that for decades concealed and denied the hazards of smoking, asserting it was their right to “believe” their products were non-addictive and did not cause cancer despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. Their dishonest claims were made all the more fraudulent when documents came to light indicating that firms such as Brown & Williamson (now part of Reynolds American) knew about the dangers at least as far back as the early 1960s.
The issue of control over tobacco packaging was already fought, and the industry lost. In 2006 a federal court, finding that the industry had caused “an immeasurable amount of suffering,” ordered it stop labeling cigarettes with designations such as low tar, light and natural that gave the misleading impression that they were safe.
Tobacco companies began using techniques such as package coloring to get around the restriction. In 2010 a New York Times article on the practice quoted Prof. Gregory Connolly of the Harvard School of Public Health as saying the industry was “circumventing the law.” He added: “They’re using color coding to perpetuate one of the biggest public health myths into the next century.”
At the heart of the new case is the tension between public policies designed to discourage tobacco use and the continued existence of an industry which has to attract customers to survive. The industry’s lawsuit, with its assertion of free speech rights, proceeds from the assumption that producing and selling tobacco products is a legitimate activity. A more appropriate premise might be that tobacco is a public health menace that should be controlled as tightly as possible until the last smoker has kicked the habit and the companies can shut down.
Big Tobacco would do well to stop wrapping itself in the Bill of Rights and acknowledge that it is lucky it is still allowed to sell its deadly products at all.