Federal court to decide graphic tobacco labels

(CBS News) - Lawyers for tobacco companies and the government are going to court Tuesday over the issue of graphic cigarette warning labels, intended to scare away potential smokers. Cigarette makers say the labels violate their First Amendment rights.

In February, a federal judge ruled that forcing tobacco companies to use the images violates their constitutional right to free speech. The Obama administration appealed.

Now the Obama administration and big tobacco will square off in a high-stakes battle in federal appeals court over how far the federal government can go to get Americans to stop smoking. The cigarette companies will argue that the government cannot force them to display disturbing images that are even more prominent than their own labels.

Editor's note: Some of the images seen in Chip Reid's report in the video above are very graphic.

Graphic Pictures: Cigarette warning labels

The images are intended to be shocking: a man exhaling smoke through a hole in his windpipe, a pair of diseased lungs next to a healthy pair, the sewn-up body of a man who died of lung cancer. If they're hard to look at, that was exactly the goal when the Food and Drug Administration ordered tobacco companies to place these images on cigarette packs as part of its aggressive effort to convince Americans, especially children and teens, not to smoke.

Patrick Reynolds, of TobaccoFree.org, said, "It's been proven in study after study that these images deter young people from starting to smoke, from buying a cigarette package."

Dan Jaffe, of the Association of National Advertisers, told CBS News, "The Supreme Court has said that the government cannot manipulate speech in this way to try to put the thumb on the scales to get people to do what they want and not make their own choices in the marketplace."

But anti-smoking activists argue that the public interest in convincing people not to smoke - even with powerful images - outweighs whatever free speech rights are at stake.

Reynolds said, "It's time to have some counter advertising right on the side of the cigarette packages to give consumers a voice and to give some balance to the glamorization of tobacco."

Many other countries, including Brazil, already require warning labels that are even more graphic, showing open wounds and even dead bodies of fetuses and adults.

Graphic Pictures: Terrifying cigarette labels from Brazil

The images in the U.S. were supposed to begin appearing on cigarette packs in September, but it's possible this case will go all the way to the Supreme Court, which could takes years, a delay that could save the tobacco companies millions in lost sales and the costs of repackaging.

To watch Chip Reid's full report, watch the video in the player above.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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