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Judge throws out tobacco suit against RI city

Michelle r. Smith, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit brought by the tobacco industry against the city of Providence, R.I. over ordinances that tighten rules on selling tobacco, rejecting the argument that they violate the industry's rights to free speech.

U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi on Monday granted the city's request to dismiss the lawsuit brought by several tobacco manufacturers and retailers, including Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, among others.

Mayor Angel Taveras on Tuesday called it a decisive victory.

"While we expect an appeal from big tobacco, this is an important step toward a healthier city. I hope today's ruling inspires other communities to follow our lead and take a stand," he said.

The Providence City Council earlier this year passed two ordinances designed to reduce tobacco use by young people. One banned stores from selling non-cigarette tobacco products that have fruit or candy flavors. The other barred them from selling tobacco products at a discount.

It is only the second city in the nation, behind New York City, to go this far to keep tobacco products out of the hands of children, said Anthony F. Cottone, a lawyer for the city.

"Youth is very sensitive to price," he said. "The city of Providence has done a lot to prevent them from getting hooked on nicotine."

The New York City rules are currently being challenged by the industry in in a federal appeals court, Cottone said.

A lawyer for Philip Morris would not comment, and lawyers for the other companies and groups suing did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The judge found that the industry's rights were not violated because the ordinances don't ban advertising about the products. Instead, they prevent tobacco companies and stores from accepting coupons or other discount deals for them, and prevent stores from selling flavored tobacco products, she said.

"The plaintiffs are free to describe their products as having or producing a characterizing flavor," Lisi writes. "They are, however, precluded from selling flavored tobacco products in Providence."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned flavored cigarettes in 2009, but non-cigarette flavored tobacco products are still allowed.

The city had agreed not to enforce the ordinances until after a judge's ruling. Taveras' office said the city will review the decision and decide when to begin enforcing it.