The nine new warnings will occupy the top 50 per cent of the front and rear panels of cigarette packs [GALLO/GETTY]

Four of the five largest US tobacco firms have filed a lawsuit against the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over what they say are unconstitutional requirements for warning labels on cigarette packaging.

Lorillard, Inc., the third largest cigarette manufacturer in the United States, said the four were "challenging nine new cigarette warnings as an unconstitutional way of forcing tobacco manufacturers to disseminate the government's anti-smoking message."

Under recently announced FDA regulations, cigarette packs, cartons and all cigarette advertising must display graphic warnings by September 22, 2012.

"The regulations violate the First Amendment," said Floyd Abrams, a partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, the law firm representing Lorillard.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Commonwealth Brands, Inc., and Liggett Group LLC joined Lorillard in the suit, which was filed in a federal court in Washington DC.

However, Altria Group Inc., parent company of the nation's largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, is not a part of the lawsuit.

The FDA has not commented on the case.

Graphic images

In June the FDA unveiled the graphic images, including a lifeless body, a scarred mouth and a blackened lung, that will occupy the top 50 per cent of the front and rear panels of cigarette packs sold in the United States.

The new warnings must constitute 20 percent of any cigarette advertising.

One of the images, which shows a man with his chest sewn up, bears the caption "Warning: Smoking can kill you."

According to the FDA, smoking kills 1,200 people a day in the United States alone.

"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," the companies wrote in the lawsuit.

The label changes came about following a June 2009 law, signed by US President Barack Obama, which gave the FDA the power to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products.

It also banned tobacco companies from sponsoring athletic or social events and prevented them from giving away free samples or branded merchandise.

A federal judge upheld many parts of the law, but the companies are appealing.

The nine images were picked from a group of 36 proposals issued several months ago, after health authorities analysed results on their effectiveness from an 18,000-person study and took into account about 1,700 public comments, the FDA said.

Each warning label also contains a phone number to call for help in quitting.

Anti-smoking groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said earlier this year that the move was "the most significant change in US cigarette warnings since they were first required in 1965."

Source: Agencies