Big Tobacco Fights Feds Over Cigarette Pack Corpses

By Tony O'Neill 08/17/11

Tobacco giants say a law placing graphic images on all US cigarette packets, slated for October, will happen over their dead bodies.

Taken too far? Photo via

Smokers feeling persecuted in these post-smoking ban days may soon suffer further at the hands of our health-conscious leaders: Federally-mandated labels featuring graphic images, including smoke billowing from a hole in someone's throat; rotting, diseased gums; and a full-color, roughly sewn-up, post-autopsy corpse. The images, reminiscent of the Faces of Death movies, will occupy the top half of the front and back of every cigarette pack sold in the US, along with death-predicting slogans. The law will take effect in October—unless tobacco companies get their way. Four of them—including giants Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds—are suing the government. They claim it's an unconstitutional way to spread an anti-smoking message: “The notion that the government can require those who manufacture a lawful product to emblazon half of its package with pictures and words admittedly drafted to persuade the public not to purchase that product cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny,” argues Lorillard attorney Floyd Abrams. It’s too early to say how this will end, but last year a Kentucky federal judge named Joseph McKinley Jr. largely rejected the industry’s free-speech challenge to federal law. Government officials say the US will have 213,000 fewer smokers one year after the law's introduction. And Justice Department attorney Alisa B. Klein wrote that restrictions are needed, as tobacco companies’ imagery "...seeks to distract potential users from the fact that tobacco products are lethal and addictive, and to suggest that tobacco is a harmless indulgence akin to designer clothing and perfume." But you don't need to be a fan of Big Tobacco to dislike the ghastly, full-color surgery pictures that the New York Health Department recently plastered on what seems like every bus stop and subway car in the city.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.