Big Tobacco to NYC: Butt Out

By Emily Rand and Paula Reid

After years of playing defense, the tobacco industry is once again trying to flex its muscle.

Tobacco giants R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and Lorillard filed a lawsuit Thursday afternoon demanding the New York City Board of Health cease requiring cigarette vendors to post graphic anti-smoking posters near cash registers.

The posters, which are produced by the New York City health department, feature photographs of smoking damage - cancerous lungs, a decayed tooth and a brain damaged by stroke - along with the text "Quit Smoking Today."

In their suit, the tobacco companies, along with several local retailers and trade organizations, allege that the posters violate their First Amendment rights because the "mandated signs restrict Plaintiffs' ability to communicate about lawful products with adult customers."

The New York City resolution, which was amended last September, mandates that "any person in the business of selling tobacco products face-to-face to consumers in New York City shall prominently display tobacco health warning and smoking cessation signage produced by the Department."

In a statement, the New York Health Department stood by its resolution, stating that the posters are a valuable tool in the fight to stop kids from buying cigarettes.

"Point-of-purchase warnings are one of the best tools we have to keep the next generation of New Yorkers from becoming addicted," the Health Department said in a released statement, "By trying to suppress this educational campaign, the tobacco industry is signaling its desire to keep kids in the dark."

Kate O'Brien, a spokesperson for the NYC law department said the department is reviewing the suit, but believes the case will be overturned. "We are confident that the health code provisions being challenged will withstand legal scrutiny," O'Brien said in a statement.

"The city's graphic signage requirement is preempted by federal law," Philip Morris USA spokesman David Sutton told CBS News. The lawsuit is not about whether or not the health effects of tobacco products should be communicated to consumers, Sutton asserted, but rather that the New York City resolution is a legislative act that the Health Department does not have the authority to impose.

"One thing is clear -- it is not up to the New York City Health Department to step in for the FDA," Sutton said.

This is not the first time in recent years that big tobacco has aggressively pushed back against cigarette marketing regulations.

In August of last year, tobacco giants R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard sued the FDA for imposing market restrictions the companies claimed violate their right to free speech.

In October 2009, Philip Morris International filed suits in Norway and Ireland challenging government imposed bans on cigarette displays at points of sale.

And just this past March, Philip Morris USA asked the FDA to withdraw four members of a tobacco-products advisory panel that they alleged had serious extensive conflicts of interest. The FDA denied the request.