Discount Tobacco City & Lottery, Inc. v. United States

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674 F.3d 509 (6th Cir. 2012)

The Tobacco Control Act’s graphic warning and other requirements upheld.

Background

On August 31, 2009, six tobacco manufacturers and retailers filed suit in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky to challenge the constitutionality of several parts of the Tobacco Control Act, including: 1) the graphic warning label requirement; 2) the modified risk tobacco product rule; 3) the prohibitions on event sponsorship, sampling, distribution of branded, non-tobacco merchandise, and continuity programs; 4) the prohibition on color/imagery in tobacco product advertising; and 5) the restriction on claims that a tobacco product is safe or safer as a result of FDA regulation. The companies argued that these provisions of the Tobacco Control Act violated their First Amendment rights. While the case moving through the D.C. Circuit, discussed below, challenges the specific graphic warning rule that the FDA passed under its authority granted by the Tobacco Control Act, this case challenges the provisions of the Tobacco Control Act itself.

The District Court’s Decision

On January 5, 2010, the District Court upheld all challenged provisions of the Act as constitutional (under the case name Commonwealth Brands, Inc. v. United States), with the exception of the Tobacco Control Act’s prohibition of color and imagery in advertising and the prohibition of statements implying that a tobacco product is safe or safer as a result of FDA regulation.1 Both the tobacco companies and the government appealed this decision.

The Court of Appeals’ Decision

On March 19, 2012, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld most of the challenged restrictions as constitutional, largely affirming the District Court’s prior decision.

The Court Upholds the Graphic Warning Label Requirement: The Court of Appeals held in a 2-1 decision that the graphic warning label requirement did not violate the First Amendment.2 In making this determination, the majority of the court applied the Zauderer standard, based on the majority’s characterization of the required graphic warnings as compelled disclosures of factual information, rather than restrictions on commercial speech.3 The majority recognized that there are “myriad graphic images” that, like textual warnings, would provide “undisputed factual information about the health risks of using tobacco products.”4

Under the Zauderer standard, disclosure requirements do not violate the First Amendment if they are reasonably related to the government’s interest in preventing consumer deception.5 The Court of Appeals determined that the government established a rational relationship between the goal of preventing consumer deception and the warning label requirement based on: 1) the tobacco industry’s extensive, documented history of deceiving the public about the health risks and addictiveness of smoking; 2) empirical evidence that existing warning requirements ineffectively convey the risks of tobacco use, particularly to youth as well as adults with low levels of education; and 3) scientific evidence that larger warnings incorporating imagery promote a greater understanding of tobacco-associated health risks.6 Thus, the Court of Appeals held that the Tobacco Control Act’s graphic warning requirement was permissible under the First Amendment.

The Court Upholds Other Challenged Provisions, with the Exception of the Prohibition on Continuity Programs and Color/Imagery in Advertising: The Court of Appeals analyzed the remaining provisions challenged under the First Amendment using a different standard, the Central Hudson standard.7 Under this standard, a restriction does not violate the First Amendment if it advances a substantial governmental interest and is no more restrictive than is necessary to achieve that interest.8 Applying this standard, the court recognized that the government has substantial interests in reducing juvenile use of tobacco products and in ensuring that the health and safety claims made by tobacco companies are not misleading to consumers.9 The court found that the Tobacco Control Act provisions prohibiting specific promotional activities, requiring FDA review of product health claims, and ensuring that tobacco companies do not claim that FDA regulation makes their products safer, directly serve one or both of these interests.10 The court also recognized that the limits imposed by the Tobacco Control Act were generally no more restrictive than necessary to achieve the government’s goals, especially given the close tie between promotional activities such as sampling, branded merchandise, and event sponsorship and juvenile use of tobacco products,11 and the difficulties the government has encountered combating juvenile tobacco use and industry misinformation through alternative means.12

The restriction on any imagery and color being used in tobacco advertising, however, failed on this “no more restrictive than necessary” analysis. While the court recognized that such a restriction serves the government’s substantial interest in “reducing the effects of tobacco advertising on juvenile consumers,”13 the court also determined that the restriction was overbroad because it would apply to non-misleading, informative advertisements targeted at adults.14 The restriction on continuity programs was also held to violate the First Amendment because the court found no evidence to support the government’s argument that prohibiting these programs would advance the government’s interest in reducing juvenile tobacco use, given that the “overwhelming beneficiaries, both numerically and comparatively, of these continuity programs are adult consumers.”15

Litigation Status

The tobacco companies petitioned for a rehearing and a rehearing en banc (a rehearing with the full panel of Sixth Circuit judges, rather than the three-judge panel that issued the appellate court decision), both of which were denied on May 31, 2012. On October 26, 2012 the tobacco companies filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, requesting review of the Sixth Circuit’s decision. The government filed its response, in opposition to Supreme Court review, on March 22, 2013. On April 22, 2013, the Supreme Court denied the tobacco industry’s appeal to review the case, rendering the Court of Appeals’ decision final.21 Because the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case, the FDA will retain the authority to promulgate a graphic warning rule in spite of the fact that the D.C. Circuit has struck down the FDA’s actual rule. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. U.S. Food & Drug Administration discusses the case challenging the FDA’s rule that establishes the content of the graphic warnings.


1Commonwealth Brands, Inc. v. United States, 678 F. Supp. 2d 512 (W.D. Ky. 2010).
2Disc. Tobacco City & Lottery, Inc. v. United States, 674 F.3d 509, 569 (6th Cir. 2012).
3Id. at 561 (citing Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, 471 U.S. 626 (1985)).
4Disc. Tobacco, 674 F.3d at 560.
5 For more information about the Zauderer standard, refer to Tobacco Control Legal Consortium, Regulating Tobacco Marketing: "Commercial Speech" Guidelines for State and Local Governments 6-7 (2010), available at http://publichealthlawcenter.org/sites/default/files/resources/tclcguidelines-speech-2010.pdf
6Disc. Tobacco, 674 F.3d at 562–64.
7Id. at 533, 539, 548, 550 (citing Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557 (1980)).
8Id. at 522–32; see supra note 4 for more information regarding the Central Hudson standard.
9Disc. Tobacco, 674 F.3d at 534, 539, 541, 550.
10Id. at 536, 541, 551.
11Id. at 541–43.
12Id. at 537.
13Id. at 548.
14Id. at 547–48.
15Id. at 544.