Government changes course on graphic cigarette warnings

New graphic cigarette packaging, released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration June 21, 2011, shows a varied collection of dead bodies, diseased lungs and a man on a ventilator were among the graphic images for revamped U.S. tobacco labels, unveiled by health officials who hope the warnings will help smokers quit. REUTERS/U.S. Food and Drug Administration/Handout

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The government has dropped its push for cigarette labels to carry images of diseased lungs and other graphic health warnings, and will craft new anti-smoking ads that do not run afoul of free speech rights.

In a letter to Republican House Speaker John Boehner last Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Food and Drug Administration would go back to the drawing board to develop the ads, as required by legislation passed by Congress in 2009.

Half the space on the front and back of each cigarette pack must be taken up by anti-smoking warnings and a large share of other printed ads should have similar discouraging messages, according to the legislation.

Cigarette manufacturers, however, sued to prevent the ads from appearing on the packaging for their products, saying such a move would curtail free speech rights. In August, a federal court struck down the requirement as unconstitutional.

The Justice Department was facing a deadline on whether to ask the Supreme Court to review that ruling.

“The Department of Justice in this case has vigorously defended the constitutionality of the graphic warnings,” Holder wrote in the letter notifying Boehner, who is a smoker. Holder said the deadline for an appeal prompted the new approach.

Many other nations have for years used graphic images to try to deter smokers.

The FDA has argued that the images of rotting teeth and diseased lungs are accurate and necessary to warn consumers - especially teenagers - about the risks of smoking.

On Tuesday, the FDA used a blog posting to say the agency “will undertake research to support a new rulemaking consistent with the (2009) Tobacco Control Act.”

Additional reporting by Toni Clarke; Editing by Paul Simao