The largest concern for First Amendment consideration is in the area of the federal government imposing restrictions upon advertising and information messages.
In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission, citing the Fairness Doctrine, required radio and TV stations that aired paid ads from tobacco companies to run anti-smoking ads at no cost. Unwilling to give up five to ten minutes a day to unpaid advertising, the stations began "voluntarily" dropping cigarette advertising.
The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which had changed the text of warning labels, also banned cigarette advertising on radio and television. In a concession to the tobacco companies, Congress permitted the law to take effect on Jan. 2, the day after the televised football bowl games. The effect of the law was a loss to radio and television stations of about $200 million a year in cigarette advertising, and a significant increase in advertising in newspapers, magazines, and billboards--and not much reduction in smoking.
A 1991 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the cartoon character Joe Camel, advertising mascot for Camel cigarettes, was recognized by 3- to 6-year-olds almost as much as they recognized Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone. The AMA charged that R.J. Reynolds, manufacturers of Camel cigarettes, had targeted children; the company denied the charges, but eventually settled the lawsuit for $10 million, the funds to go to anti-smoking campaigns.
In 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was the result of years of litigation and negotiation between the four largest tobacco companies, which controlled about 97 percent of all domestic sales, and 46 state attorneys general; four states had already settled. That agreement exempted the companies from class-action tort liability by citizens filing against the companies for health effects from smoking. The federal government also agreed to provide subsidies to tobacco farmers to cover losses based upon reduction of demand for their product. In exchange, the tobacco companies agree to provide $365.5 billion , with most of the funds going to the states for anti-smoking campaigns, and to allow FDA regulation. Among other provisions, the tobacco companies agreed to cut back advertising and sponsorship of activities, especially those that targeted youth. Because this was a civil case settlement, First Amendment concerns were rendered moot.
However, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2010 is a government-imposed control that brings to question distinct First Amendment concerns. That Act bans tobacco companies from sponsoring all sports and cultural events, which could loosely be interpreted as a violation of the right of association, not specifically mentioned in wording in the First Amendment but extended by the Supreme Court decisions involving First Amendment guarantees. The Act further bans tobacco companies from displaying all tobacco-related images, including their logos, on any apparel, and also requires most advertising to be black lettering on a white background. Both actions are probable First Amendment violations.
A critical side issue melds labels with the media. It would be nearly impossible for any medium to show anyone with a cigarette pack, whether in news or entertainment, without also showing the government's message. Any attempt by the government to regulate what appears on screen or in print would violate the First Amendment.
Without the Citizens United decision, the government's rights to regulate corporate advertising would probably not have significant basis for challenge. With that decision, tobacco corporate entities suddenly have a case.
[This column is meant to be a general overview and not a definitive analysis or detailed case study of possible First Amendment violations of government-imposed sanctions against tobacco companies. Dr. Brasch, professor emeritus of mass communications and journalism, is a specialist in First Amendment and contemporary social justice issues. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]