RICHMOND, Va. – The federal government can’t require tobacco companies to put large graphic health warnings on cigarette packages to show that smoking can disfigure and even kill people, a divided federal appeals court panel ruled Friday.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington affirmed a lower court ruling that the requirement ran afoul of the First Amendment’s free speech protections. The appeals court tossed out the requirement and told the Food and Drug Administration to go back to the drawing board. The decision is considered a blow to one of the Obama administration’s major public health initiatives, raises the prospect of another U.S. Supreme Court tobacco battle and opens the door to further challenges of the FDA’s regulatory scheme.

Some of the nation’s largest tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., sued to block the mandate to include warnings to show the dangers of smoking and encouraging smokers to quit lighting up. They argued that the proposed warnings went beyond factual information into anti-smoking advocacy. The government argued the photos of dead and diseased smokers are factual in conveying the dangers of tobacco, which is responsible for about 443,000 deaths in the U.S. a year.

The nine graphic warnings proposed by the FDA include color images of a man exhaling cigarette smoke through a tracheotomy hole in his throat, and a plume of cigarette smoke enveloping an infant receiving a mother’s kiss. These are accompanied by language that says smoking causes cancer and can harm fetuses. The warnings were to cover the entire top half of cigarette packs, front and back, and include the phone number for a stop-smoking hotline, 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

In the majority opinion, the appeals court wrote that the case raises “novel questions about … making ‘every single pack of cigarettes in the country (a) mini billboard’ for the government’s anti-smoking message.”