A Board of Health directive could soon require any retailers selling cigarettes to display graphic warning signs (like the sample here) about the dangers of smoking, plus information on where to seek help quitting. But that would violate their First Amendment rights by focring them to "undertake graphic advocacy on behalf of the city," according to a lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court today by cigarette manufacturers' R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and Lorillard, along with two Queens convenience stores and two retail groups.

The signs, which vividly depict the insalubrious effects of smoking on various parts of the human body (think mouth cancer and heart disease), "do not describe the risks of smoking in purely factual terms," the lawsuit claims. Furthermore, "The mandated signs crowd out other advertisements and otherwise dominate the point of sale in many smaller establishments, to the exclusion of merchandise or other messages chosen by the store owners. The signs thus deprive retailers of the limited space available for communicating with their customers and thereby restrict their speech." Say, it's nice to see Big Tobacco sticking up for the little guy, innit?

In a statement, the Health Department says:

Tobacco is an addictive drug that kills some 7,500 New Yorkers every year. It disables many more. Yet studies show that many smokers are still unaware of the full risks that smoking poses. By requiring cigarette vendors to post warning signs at the point of sale in retail outlets, New York City is trying to alert that anyone considering a tobacco purchase to the consequences of smoking, and direct them to resources that can help with quitting.

We know that health warnings raise people’s awareness of the dangers of smoking, help prevent kids from starting smoking, and motivate smokers to quit. Point-of-purchase warnings are one of the best tools we have to keep the next generation of New Yorkers from becoming addicted. By trying to suppress this educational campaign, the tobacco industry is signaling its desire to keep kids in the dark.