The Fifth Circuit recently upheld the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s mandate for graphic health warning labels on cigarette packaging and advertising, marking a pivotal win for public health. The court's ruling in R.J. Reynolds v. FDA, delivered on March 21, 2024, overturns a prior decision by a lower court.

The crux of this legal challenge was the FDA’s 2020 regulation requiring 11 distinct graphic warnings on cigarette packages and advertisements. The FDA's rule requires labels depicting the various harmful health effects of smoking. For example, one warning depicts an image of a child with a nebulizer and an accompanying statement that “tobacco smoke can harm your children.” The court rejected arguments from R.J. Reynolds that the labels violate the First Amendment or take up too much space on packages. In upholding the graphic warning labels, the Fifth Circuit determined that the warnings are "factual and uncontroversial" and promote a legitimate government interest.

Health Through the Power of Law

The Public Health Law Center’s 2023 amicus brief – one of two briefs we filed in this case – played a role in shaping the court’s perspective. Our brief argued that the graphic warnings offer “a straightforward, science-based, objectively truthful depiction of the accompanying text,” a viewpoint the court endorsed. The court’s ruling not only celebrates the dedication of the public health community but also emphasizes the role of law in advancing science-based interventions against tobacco-related harm.

Graphic Impact

The impact of this decision transcends the matter of graphic warning labels alone. It reinforces the government’s power to implement public health advisories, which will likely result in reductions in smoking rates and associated illnesses. Over 120 countries use graphic warning labels on commercial tobacco products, and studies show these labels are more effective than text-only warnings in informing smokers of risks and encouraging quitting. The R.J. Reynolds v. FDA ruling sets an important precedent that graphic images are legally viable approaches to  advance legitimate public health goals like reducing commercial tobacco use.

Looking Forward

Despite this significant victory, the battle for graphic warning labels may not be over. The tobacco industry could continue its legal challenges, possibly appealing to the full appellate court for a review or even the U.S. Supreme Court. Nevertheless, this moment is still a cause for celebration among public health advocates, marking a critical step forward in the long-standing fight to inform consumers effectively of the harms of commercial tobacco products.

Willow Anderson, Staff Attorney
March 28, 2024