When Congress gave the Food and Drug Administration regulatory power over tobacco products, the industry actually promoted the plan. But that support seems to have lasted about as long as a typical smoke break.

As soon as the FDA banned one of the cigarette makers' favorite marketing ploys — the sale of cigarettes with healthy-sounding names like light, mild, and low-tar — the companies cried foul. They then promptly took other steps to market supposedly less-harmful cigarettes to smokers, even while admitting as an industry that "there is no safe cigarette."

Now the tobacco companies are in a pitched legal battle with the FDA over the sensible plan that takes effect this fall to require graphic warnings on half of every cigarette pack, front and back, as a reminder of the deadly consequences of tobacco use.

A panel of federal judges in Ohio upheld the warnings on labels in a ruling last month, but a federal judge in Washington in late February blocked the FDA from implementing the warnings on grounds that they violated cigarette makers' free-speech rights. Now the issue will be decided by a federal appeals court, which heard arguments last week.

A spokesman for one of the cigarette makers fighting the labels says the rule would involve "taking our package to deliver anti-tobacco information." But that's exactly what the surgeon general's warnings have done for decades.

The planned images of diseased lungs, toe-tagged bodies, terminally ill cancer patients, and the like would merely kick it up a notch in a legitimate public-health campaign to save some of the 440,000 lives lost to tobacco-related illness each year. Big Tobacco's opposition is the best sign the labels just might work.