Tobacco companies contest NY anti-smoking signs

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City anti-smoking signs depicting a decaying tooth, diseased lungs and a damaged brain violate cigarette vendors’ free speech and should be removed, tobacco companies and retailers said in a lawsuit.

A man smokes outside the Taipei railway station January 13, 2010. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

Philip Morris USA, Lorillard Tobacco Company, and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., plus two major retail trade groups and two convenience stores, alleged in the Manhattan federal court lawsuit that the signs violate the sellers’ rights by imposing the signs on them.

“The government may not force private parties to carry messages beyond purely uncontroversial factual statements that are designed to prevent consumer deception,” said the lawsuit, filed on Wednesday and made available to reporters on Thursday.

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.

“The signs ... do not describe the risks of smoking in purely factual terms. Instead, the signs force tobacco manufacturers and retailers to communicate vivid images at the point of sale,” the suit said.

New York cigarette sellers face a $2,000 fine if they fail to display at least one warning sign at the cash register or next to the cigarettes. No other U.S. city has adopted similar measures, city Health Department officials said.

City agencies, however, said the anti-smoking campaign was necessary and Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made a smoke-free New York one of his major priorities, having banned smoking in bars and restaurants.

“We are confident that the health code provisions being challenged will withstand legal scrutiny,” said New York City Law Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Thomas.

“By trying to suppress this educational campaign, the tobacco industry is signaling its desire to keep kids in the dark,” a statement by the city’s Health Department said.

The lawsuit also alleged federal anti-smoking rules prevent local governments from interfering with cigarette advertising.

Reporting by Basil Katz; editing by Anthony Boadle