New Studies Showing Tobacco Companies Still Mislead Smokers Reinforce Need for Effective Regulation of Tobacco Products

Statement of Matthew L. Myers President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Dec. 8 2004

Washington, DC — More than four decades after the first Surgeon General’s Report was released on the dangers of smoking, smokers continue to be misled by the tobacco companies about both traditional and so-called “reduced-risk” products. Taken together, several new studies published today in the December issue of Nicotine & Tobacco Research suggest not only that current smokers continue to be misled, particularly about “light” cigarettes, but that we risk a repeat of the disaster of light and low tar cigarettes with the introduction of a new generation of products with unsubstantiated claims about their relative safety. Another study shows that smokers are uninformed about the health risks of smoking. These findings underscore the urgent need for Congress to pass legislation granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) effective authority over tobacco products, including health claims made about them.

Two of the studies in particular highlight how the tobacco companies misled smokers about light cigarettes and how claims about new products threaten to continue and expand that deception.

  • The study “Smokers’ Responses to Advertisements for Regular and Light Cigarettes and Potential Reduced-Risk Tobacco Products (PREPS)” shows that smokers perceive so-called “reduced risk” cigarettes to have lower health risks and carcinogens than light cigarettes and light cigarettes to have lower health risks and carcinogens than regular cigarettes. Despite the fact that none of the ads in the survey explicitly stated that the products advertised were healthier, 62 percent believed the ads for “reduced risk” cigarettes conveyed a message that the product was healthier or safer, as did 44 percent for lights, while just 10 percent thought the ads for regular cigarettes contained such a message. Perhaps most disconcerting is that fact that two-thirds of the respondents believe that claims in ads that a cigarette is less dangerous have to be approved by a government agency.
  • The study “What Do Marlboro Light Smokers Know About Low Tar Cigarettes” details how Philip Morris designed and marketed Marlboro Lights to discourage smokers from trying to quit even though the company knew these cigarettes were no less hazardous when smoked by humans. It also demonstrates how the misperceptions about Marlboro Lights continue today, as 61 percent of Marlboro Lights smokers believe that the cigarettes are less dangerous because they contain filters; over half of the respondents believe advertisements for “less tar” means less dangerous; and over 45 percent surveyed thought two or more “light” cigarettes produced the same amount of tar as a regular cigarette.

This latest research shows that even after a 2002 National Cancer Institute (NCI) study on low-tar cigarettes showed the tobacco industry purposely designed low-tar cigarettes to appear less toxic in machine tests while knowing that they actually posed the same level of risk to smokers, the tobacco companies still continue to market their products by using unsubstantiated health claims, and smokers are still misinformed about the health risks of smoking. The FDA must have effective and comprehensive authority over the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products to prevent a repeat of the light/low-tar public health disaster with a new generation of deceptively marketed tobacco products.

These studies clearly demonstrate that smokers are at risk of being misled by a new generation of so-called “reduced risk” products just as they were by light and low tar cigarettes. Without Food and Drug Administration authority to assess the validity of claims by tobacco companies about their products, the experience of light and low tar cigarettes, which discouraged millions of Americans from quitting smoking and encouraged others to take up the deadly habit, is likely to be repeated with so-called “reduced risk” products that claim to contain “less carcinogens” such as Brown and Williamson’s Advance, RJ Reynolds’ Eclipse, and Vector’s Omni. FDA authority over tobacco products would ban deceptive terms like “light”, “ultra-light”, and “low-tar” and would not permit health claims in the absence of scientific evidence.

These studies are also relevant to the ongoing Department of Justice lawsuit against the tobacco companies that alleges they have engaged in and executed – and continue to engage in and execute – a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public.

A third study in the journal reveals that smokers are not only uninformed about the health risks of smoking but also over-estimate their own knowledge.

  • The study “Are Smokers Adequately Informed About the Health Risks of Smoking and Medicinal Nicotine” shows that nearly all smokers (95 percent) surveyed believe they are adequately informed about the health risks of smoking, yet 39 percent of their answers to items about health risks were either incorrect or “don’t know.” Smokers are even less knowledgeable about other aspects of smoking, including ingredients and additives, light and low tar cigarettes, and the dangers of nicotine medication. Many smokers mistakenly believe that nicotine patches are as likely to cause addiction as cigarettes and even that nicotine causes cancer.

The fact that consumers still underestimate the health risks of smoking is yet another reason for FDA regulation of tobacco products. The tobacco industry’s portrayal of its products is part of the problem. The underestimation of the health risks of smoking, along with a misunderstanding of the risks and benefits of medicinal nicotine, can also deter smokers from trying to quit and from using the methods that greatly enhance success in quitting. These findings suggest the continued need for public education campaigns, independent of the tobacco companies, to educate the public about the harms of smoking, the benefits of quitting, and the resources available to help them quit.

Tobacco use is the nation’s leading preventable cause of death, killing more than 400,000 people and costing our nation more than $75 billion in health care bills every year. Every day, another 2,000 kids become regular smokers, one-third of whom will die prematurely as a result. Yet tobacco products are virtually unregulated to protect consumers’ health and safety. Congress should pass legislation that grants the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products and protect the public health and ensure that once and for all, smokers are informed about the health effects of tobacco products.

 

Media Contacts