Tuesday, April 25, 2017

New Article on Graphic Warning Labels is Wrong on the Law: Why Strict Scrutiny is the Proper Standard for Proposed FDA Warnings

In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued regulations that required graphic warning labels on cigarette packages. The FDA chose nine graphic images, such as a picture of a man with a chest scar from cardiac surgery, along with a telephone number for smokers to call for help with smoking cessation (1-800-QUIT-NOW). The tobacco companies subsequently challenged the rule, arguing that it violated their First Amendment rights by compelling them to commercial speech which is against their economic interests (i.e., speech which strongly encourages consumers to stop using the product). The D.C. district court overturned the regulations on this basis, a decision that was affirmed by the appellate court.

One of the issues in the case was whether the required warning labels represent merely factual and uncontroversial information or whether they are intended to elicit an emotional response that goes beyond merely the provision of factual information. In an apparent attempt to defend the regulations, new research published in the journal Tobacco Control reports the results of a study showing that graphic images can be informative and textual messages can evoke emotion, thus (supposedly) invalidating the court's reasoning in rejecting the rule.

(See: Popova L, et al. Factual text and emotional pictures: overcoming a false dichotomy of cigarette warning labels. Tobacco Control 2017; http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2016-053563.)

The article concludes: "Our findings contradict courts’ conclusions that pictorial messages are emotional and not factual. Pictorial labels are rated as informative and factual, textual labels evoke emotion, and emotionality and informativeness are strongly correlated. These findings serve as evidence for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to counteract the claim that pictorial warning labels, by definition, are not ‘purely factual and uncontroversial’."

The Rest of the Story

There are a number of reasons why this analysis is wrong on the law, but the first is that it ignores the word "purely." What this paper shows is that graphic images can not only invoke emotion, but also provide information. If the criterion for applying a low level of scrutiny (i.e., using the Zauderer standard) was that a compelled statement must have factual content, then this research might be relevant. However, the issue at hand is whether the compelled statement is "purely" factual. With the FDA's proposed graphic warning labels, this was clearly not the case. The graphic images were specifically chosen to evoke high levels of emotion and therefore to accomplish the government's purpose of persuading smokers to quit. That this was the real purpose of the required labels is evidenced by the fact that the FDA included the 1-800-QUIT-NOW hotline number on the packages.

In order to apply the Zauderer standard, the intended purpose of the compelled speech must be to prevent the dissemination of misleading, deceptive, or false information. Compelling a manufacturer to include a warning message that persuades the consumer not to purchase the product has never been the type of commercial speech to which Zauderer has been applied, even if such a message conveys some factual information.

For example, the government can certainly require an alcohol manufacturer to include a warning on a bottle informing consumers that alcohol consumption is linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes, liver disease, or cancer. However, requiring the bottle to include the message "PLEASE DO NOT PURCHASE THIS PRODUCT. PLEASE STOP DRINKING IMMEDIATELY AND COMPLETELY" would obviously not fall under the Zauderer standard.

The bottom line is that the government cannot compel a company to provide warning labels that essentially hijack the packaging and use it as an anti-smoking billboard. The government is free to convey anti-smoking messages through its own advertisements. But it cannot hijack the companies' packaging and advertisements and compel speech that is specifically urging consumers not to purchase the product. Even if some factual information is conveyed, this does not fall under the Zauderer standard for a low level of scrutiny.

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