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WEDNESDAY, March 20 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. government won't pursue a legal battle to mandate large, gruesome images on cigarette labeling in an effort to dissuade potential smokers and get current smokers to quit.
According to a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder obtained by the Associated Press, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now plans to revise its proposed label changes with less unsettling approaches.
The decision comes ahead of a Monday deadline set for the agency to petition the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue. In August, an appeals court upheld a prior ruling that the labeling requirement infringed on First Amendment free speech protections.
"In light of these circumstances, the Solicitor General has determined ... not to seek Supreme Court review of the First Amendment issues at the present time," Holder wrote in the Friday letter to House of Representatives' Speaker John Boehner.
The proposed label requirement from the FDA -- which had been set to begin last September -- would have emblazoned cigarette packaging with images of people dying from smoking-related disease, mouth and gum damage linked to smoking and other graphic portrayals of the harms of smoking.
Some of the nation's largest tobacco companies filed lawsuits to invalidate the requirement for the new labels. The companies contended that the proposed warnings went beyond factual information into anti-smoking advocacy, the AP reported.
In February 2012, Judge Richard Leon, of the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, ruled that the FDA mandate violated the U.S. Constitution's free speech amendment. And in August, a U.S. appeals court upheld that lower court ruling.
Proposed label changes to tobacco products are a part of the requirements of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which was signed into law in 2009 by President Barack Obama. For the first time, that law gave the FDA significant control over tobacco products.
Responding to the court decision last August, Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a news release that "tobacco companies are fighting the graphic warnings precisely because they know such warnings are effective. The companies continue to spend billions of dollars to play down the health risks of smoking and glamorize tobacco use."
In an email sent this week to the AP, Floyd Abrams, a lawyers who represented Lorillard Tobacco Co. in the court challenge, said the Justice Department's decision came as no surprise. "The graphic warnings imposed by the FDA were constitutionally indefensible," he wrote.
In a statement released Tuesday, the FDA said it would "undertake research to support a new rulemaking consistent with the Tobacco Control Act," the AP said. There was no time frame set for the new revised labeling.
The nine original proposed images, designed to fill the top half of all cigarette packs, had stirred controversy since the concept first emerged in 2009.
One image shows a man's face and a lighted cigarette in his hand, with smoke escaping from a hole in his neck -- the result of a tracheotomy. The caption reads, "Cigarettes are addictive." Another image shows a mother holding a baby as smoke swirls about them, with the warning: "Tobacco smoke can harm your children."
A third image depicts a distraught woman with the caption: "Warning: Smoking causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers."
Smoking is the leading cause of early and preventable death in the United States, resulting in some 443,000 fatalities each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and costs almost $200 billion every year in medical costs and lost productivity.
Over the last decade, countries as varied as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Iran and Singapore, among others, have adopted graphic warnings on tobacco products.
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