NEW YORK - New York City anti-smoking signs depicting a decaying tooth, diseased lungs and a damaged brain would violate cigarette vendors' free speech if displayed according to city rules, a U.S. judge said Wednesday, handing a court victory to tobacco companies.
Philip Morris USA, Lorillard Tobacco Co and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co, plus two major retail trade groups and two convenience stores, said in a Manhattan federal court lawsuit that the signs violate the sellers' rights.
By placing the gruesome posters at the point of sale, the city overstepped its mandate, the judge said, as only the federal government has the right to impose such conditions on the promotion of cigarettes.
"Even merchants of morbidity are entitled to the full protection of the law, for our sake as well as theirs," U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff said in his ruling.
The three different signs, developed by the city's Health Department and required as of last December, graphically depict the harmful effects smoking can have on the body. They bear messages such as "smoking causes tooth decay" and list the number of a city helpline for assistance on how to quit.
Following the June lawsuit, the city agreed to temporarily halt enforcement of the signs.
"We are disappointed that this important health initiative was rejected by the court," Nicholas Ciappetta, the city attorney who handled the case, said in a statement. "We are studying the decision and considering our legal options."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made fighting smoking a personal crusade. In 2003, he pushed a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants that was met with howls of protests but has since become widely accepted. In September, he announced plans -- which have yet to be approved -- to ban smoking in parks, beaches, boardwalks, pedestrian plazas and other outdoor public spaces.
The U.S. government requires tobacco companies print the "Surgeon General's Warnings" about potential health problems on all cigarette packages, ads and billboards. Last month federal drug regulators revealed 36 images for possible warning labels that featured dead smokers, a man blowing smoke through a tracheotomy hole in his throat and a mother blowing smoke in a baby's face. (Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Bill Trott)
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