Danger! Smokes in here

The Nanny State crowd took a hit last week when a federal judge blocked the FDA requirement that cigarette companies feature new, graphic government-sanctioned warning labels on their product packages by next September.

The notion here — similar to the idea that if potential new drivers watch gruesome accident scene footage, they will be forever cautious behind the wheel — seems to be that we can scare away new smokers by forcing them to view pictures of corpses or tracheotomy patients.

Problem is, there’s little proof that any of this works in the long run. Remember “Scared Straight”?

Besides, the new labels raised obvious First Amendment issues.

“It’s basically rooted in the notion that compelled speech by the government is presumptively unconstitutional,” said Floyd Abrams, the attorney who argued the case for Lorillard Tobacco. “The only exception that could fit here is the one which says that the government can require warnings to be placed on products including tobacco products, but that the warnings must be factual and uncontroversial in nature.”

Judge Richard J. Leon agreed with Mr. Abrams, holding that the labels were not factual and were instead intended to force private businesses to use their products as billboards to promote a specific government agenda.

It’s the right call.

Smoking is a foul habit. Cigarettes are bad. But tobacco packages already contain a government warning label. It’s hard to believe there’s anyone on the planet who doesn’t understand there are health risks associated with smoking.

If health experts want to discourage people from acquiring the habit or encourage people to quit, have at it. But those efforts must respect the fact that in a free society, individuals have a right to make their own choices — and that government-mandated activism runs counter to the Bill of Rights.

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