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Today, a federal appeals court considers the question of how far the government can go in forcing a business to warn consumers about its product. This case is not just about any product; it's one that can kill you - cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration wants large, graphic warning labels to scare smokers. Tobacco companies says that violates their right to free speech. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Diseased lungs; gnarly, rotting teeth; even what appears to be the corpse of a smoker are some of the images that accompany the bold, new cigarette labels FDA requires to cover half a pack of cigarettes, front and back. The written warnings include Smoking Can Kill You, and Cigarettes Cause Cancer.

DAVID HUDSON: It's going beyond, I think, what is necessary.

ELLIOTT: David Hudson is a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Nashville.

HUDSON: It's just so in your face, so graphic - these pictures. I think it's just simply - it's just simply too much.

ELLIOTT: But that's what Congress intended when it mandated the labels in a 2009 law that gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco. Susan Liss, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, says the idea is to counteract the tobacco industry's track record of misleading smokers.

SUSAN LISS: We are dealing with an industry with a decades-long history of deceiving the public about the health risks of smoking, and the enhanced warning labels are a direct response to the deception of the industry.

ELLIOTT: Washington, D.C., federal judge Richard Leon blocked FDA from implementing the labels, siding with cigarette makers who sued over their right to free speech. The judge questioned whether the government had crossed the line into advocacy by using such graphic images. The fact that an image is evocative shouldn't matter, says Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

MATT MYERS: The picture of somebody who is dying from tobacco can be an accurate representation of the health effects of smoking, even if it evokes an emotional reaction.

ELLIOTT: Tobacco Free Kids and other anti-smoking groups have filed a friend- of-the-court brief with the D.C. appeals court, arguing the new labels are in line with FDA's power to warn consumers about dangerous products. FDA officials and the tobacco companies declined to discuss the case. But it's one being watched by constitutional scholars because of the nation's mixed case law when it comes to protections for commercial speech.

Another federal appeals court has already upheld the cigarette warning labels as constitutional. George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley says the threshold question is how far the government can go to compel commercial speech.

JONATHAN TURLEY: These graphic images are really the government getting into marketing, and trying to force companies that have lawful products to use repellent packaging.

ELLIOTT: He says other businesses should be paying attention.

TURLEY: Cigarettes are not the only harmful product. Can they, for example, require a picture of a cirrhotic liver on a wine bottle, or on any type of alcoholic beverage?

ELLIOTT: The ultimate decision will likely be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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