The Right to Health and Free Speech: Supreme Court of Argentina Rules Against Tobacco Advertising

by Martín Hevia (Universidad Torcuato Di Tella)

In 2006, Nobleza Piccardo, a main tobacco company in Argentina, had filed a claimed against the government of the Province of Santa Fe because a law sanctioned by the Provintial Congress completely banned the advertising and promotion of tobacco products in the Province (Santa Fe is one of the main Provinces of Argentina). Nobleza Piccardo argued that those restrictions infringed upon free speech and upon commercial freedom. It also claimed that, under the Argentine National Constitution, the Province is not allowed to pass legislation of that kind because the National Congress had already passed law 23.344, which regulated tobacco advertising (but did not ban it); once National Congress did so, Provintial Congresses cannot further legislate on the issue.

In its October 27 ruling, the Supreme Court held that nothing in the National Constitution provides National Congress with an exclusive power to legislate on health matters. Furthermore, Provintial legislation may complement federal legislation on the matter.

On the free speech and commercial freedom argument, the Court held that there is a tendency in other jurisdictions to restrict or even completely ban tobacco advertising. According to the Court, the restrictions established by the law are justified because they are proportionate to the public health concerns it wants to address; in addition, they follow internationallly accepted standards on the matter.

In his vote, Judge Lorenzetti, President of the Supreme Court, wrote that restricting tobacco advertising does not infringe upon free speech because tobacco advertising is not related to the working of republican and democratic institutions. Thus, Lorenzetti says, it would be wrong to analyze the restrictions established by the provintial law with the strict scrutiny test used in free speech cases. This claim, of course, is very important and will deserve much more discussion by the Supreme Court in future decisions. But the main teaching of the case is that, for the first time, the Supreme Court clearly states that tobacco control measures are a matter of human rights. This is, no doubt, a very important step.

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