Cigarette Warning Labels

One of the hot button issues around these days relates to the notion of “paternalism”: the government telling us what we can and cannot do in our own best interest. But what happens if the government just makes suggestions? What is the role of government speech that merely suggests what we should or should not do? And an interesting related question is: does the government have a First Amendment right to say what it wants?

Earlier this year the government mandated a new set of warning labels on cigarette packs and ads. But instead of simply saying cigarettes are bad for you, the new labels include pictures of corpses and diseased lungs.

As you might expect, the cigarette companies are not at all happy about the new requirements. After all, they certainly don’t want anyone being reminded that their products are lethal and serve no purpose except to kill people.

But what is particularly interesting is that the companies are claiming their First Amendment rights are somehow being violated by the new rules, which are scheduled to take effect next year. The argument seems to be that the new labels take up space on the package and in ads that could be used to either identify the product, or tell us how good cigarettes are.

In addition, cigarette advocates say that smoking is a personal choice, and if people want to kill themselves with cigarettes, that is none of the government’s business.

Those folks are, of course, absolutely correct. And the government has done absolutely nothing to make people from smoking. After all, warning labels don’t stop you from smoking, they merely warn what happens if you do.

As for the government having First Amendment rights to say what it wants, well, of course it does. Governments at all levels tell us what we should and should not do. Television ads tell us what will happen if we don’t wear seat belts, soup cans tell us sodium content and record labels warn us about explicit lyrics.

Speech is speech, and anyone, including the government, with something to say, should be able to state their case.

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