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24 states back FDA on tobacco warning label lawsuit

This combo made from file images provided by the FDA shows two of nine new warning labels cigarette makers will have to use by the fall of 2012. Several large U.S. tobacco companies sued the federal government over the proposed labels, saying the warnings violate their free speech rights and will cost millions of dollars to print. AP

(CBS/AP) Several states have weighed in on the lawsuit between the federal government and big tobacco over new graphic tobacco warning labels the FDA wants placed on cigarette packs in 2012.

PICTURES: 27 cigarette warning labels nixed by the FDA

Twenty four attorneys general filed a friend of the court brief on Friday in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington in support of the FDA's challenge of a lower court ruling in the case.

Last month, a U.S. District Court judge granted a request by some of the nation's largest tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co., to block the labels while deciding whether the labels violate free speech rights. Some proposed labels include phrases like "Smoking can kill you" and "Cigarettes cause cancer" and images of a smoker's corpse and diseased lungs. The judge ruled it is likely the cigarette makers would succeed in a lawsuit to block the requirement.

The tobacco companies have questioned the labels' constitutionality, saying the warnings don't simply convey facts to inform people's decision whether to smoke but instead force cigarette makers to spend millions of dollars to display government anti-smoking advocacy more prominently than their own branding.

Meanwhile, the FDA has said that the public interest in conveying the dangers of smoking outweighs the companies' rights to free speech.

On Friday, the attorneys general said that the First Amendment does not prevent the government from requiring that "lethal and addictive products carry warning labels that effectively inform consumers of the risks those products entail."

"Over forty years' experience with small, obscurely placed text-only warning labels on cigarette packs has demonstrated that they simply do not work," they wrote. "The warning labels reflect the unique magnitude of the problem they address, the deadly and addictive nature of the product, and the unparalleled threat this product and its marketing pose to America's youth."

The brief was filed on behalf of Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, the Virgin Islands, Washington and West Virginia.

While the tobacco industry's latest legal challenge may not hold up, it could delay the new warning labels for years, likely saving cigarette makers millions of dollars in lost sales and increased packaging costs.

Tobacco companies are increasingly relying on their packaging to build brand loyalty and grab consumers. It's one of few advertising levers left to them after the government curbed their presence in magazines, billboards and TV.

U.S. tobacco use is responsible for about 443,000 deaths per year, and an estimated 49,000 of these tobacco-related deaths are the result of secondhand smoke exposure, according to the CDC. On average, smokers die 13 to 14 years earlier than nonsmokers.

The CDC has more on tobacco and health.

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