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Tobacco firms fight shock pictures

US Tobacco companies are trying to get a legal ban on compulsory graphic cigarette labels that include the sewn-up corpse of a smoker and pictures of diseased lungs, saying they are unfair to business.

Four of the five largest companies sued the federal government, saying the warnings violate their free speech rights.

"Never before in the United States have producers of a lawful product been required to use their own packaging and advertising to convey an emotionally-charged government message urging adult consumers to shun their products," they said in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington.

The companies, led by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Lorillard Tobacco, said the warnings no longer simply convey facts to allow people to make a decision on whether to smoke. They instead force them to put government anti-smoking advocacy more prominently on their packs than their own brands, the companies say. They want a judge to stop the labels.

The Food and Drug Administration refused to comment, saying it does not discuss pending litigation. But when she announced the new labels in June, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called them frank and honest warnings about the dangers of smoking.

The FDA approved nine new warnings to rotate on cigarette packs. They will be printed on the entire top half, front and back, of the packaging. The new warnings also must constitute 20% of any cigarette advertising. They also all include a number for a stop-smoking hotline.

One warning label is a picture of a corpse with its chest sewed up and the words: "Smoking can kill you." Another label has a picture of a healthy pair of lungs beside a yellow and black pair with a warning that smoking causes fatal lung disease.

The lawsuit said the images were manipulated to be especially emotional. The tobacco companies said the corpse photo is actually an actor with a fake scar, while the healthy lungs were sanitised to make the diseased organ look worse.

The companies also said the new labels will cost them millions of dollars for new equipment so they can frequently change from warning to warning and designers to make sure the labels meet federal requirements while maintaining some distinction among brands.

Joining R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard in the suit are Commonwealth Brands, Liggett Group LLC and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company.

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