Jun. 8 2010
Washington, D.C. — On June 22, the first anniversary of the law granting the Food and Drug Administration authority over tobacco products, one of the most significant provisions of the law will take effect: A ban on the use of the deceptive terms "light," "mild" and "low" tar in the marketing and sale of cigarettes.
This prohibition seeks to end one of the deadliest consumer frauds of our time. For decades, the tobacco industry responded to growing health concerns about smoking by using these terms to promote the falsehood that some cigarette brands are less harmful, and to discourage smokers from quitting. This deception has had devastating consequences for public health.
More than half of daily American smokers — including nearly two-thirds of women who smoke — say they smoke brands marketed as "light" or "ultra-light." Multiple studies have found that smokers commonly believe that using these products enables them to reduce the risk of smoking without having to quit. This is false, and internal industry documents have shown that the tobacco companies know it is false.
Industry Seeks to Foil New Rules
Despite the law, tobacco companies already are using new tactics to foil the regulations and perpetuate the deception. These include using lighter-colored packaging for light brands, and switching to terms such as "gold" and "silver" to replace "light" and "ultra-light."
Philip Morris recently distributed a flyer to retailers detailing the switch from "light" and "low" labels to color-coded brands and packaging. (Marlboro Lights will be renamed Marlboro Gold, while Marlboro Ultra Lights becomes Marlboro Silver). Similarly, R.J. Reynolds has changed Salem Lights and Ultra Lights to "Gold Box" and "Silver Box."
Tobacco companies have used similar strategies in the more than 70 other countries that have already banned terms such as "light" and "low." Initial studies show that in those countries where the color-coding ruse has taken place, consumers continue to wrongly perceive such brands as being less harmful, or making smoking easier to quit, than "regular" brands.
The FDA must examine these practices closely and exercise its authority to stop new industry efforts to mislead consumers. The law prohibits practices that "explicitly or implicitly" suggest that a tobacco product is less harmful.
There are several steps the FDA should take:
Vigilant monitoring and strong enforcement by the FDA is critical to ensuring the tobacco industry’s well-practiced trickery finally ends.
History of the Light and Low Deception
As far back as the 1930s and 1940s, the tobacco industry promoted certain cigarette brands as being less irritating, protective of smokers’ health — and even endorsed by doctors.
Beginning in the 1950s, when the serious health harms from cigarette smoking were becoming better known, the industry responded aggressively by introducing filter cigarettes and marketing them as products for "smart" smokers who wanted to protect themselves. For example, the Parliament brand was touted as having a "built-in filter mouthpiece" that "removes much of the tar all cigarette smoke contains." View the video.
The introduction of filters and the subsequent "tar derby" of competing industry claims about "low" tar and nicotine levels were forerunners of the contemporary marketing strategy for light and low-tar cigarettes. These brands proliferated after the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s report definitively connected smoking with cancer and other serious diseases, and public apprehension about the health risks of smoking soared. The industry’s answer was a scheme to provide false health assurances and get smokers to switch, not quit.
Its advertising explicitly said that "light" "low" and "mild" cigarettes were an alternative to quitting. "Considering all I’d heard, I decided to either quit or smoke True," says an advertisement featuring a female model on the tennis court. "I smoke True."
Another tactic was to directly address smokers’ health concerns and try to soothe them. "Vantage is solving a lot of my problems about smoking," an ad for Vantage cigarettes declared. Often, new brands were promoted as having advanced technology that would deliver "taste" while simultaneously reducing health risks.
The tobacco industry knew all along that there was no benefit in smoking reduced tar and nicotine cigarettes. The companies know that the design of their cigarettes enabled smokers of these brands to compensate in a variety of ways to take in the nicotine they crave. They smoke more cigarettes, inhale more deeply or block ventilation holes.
Nonetheless, research shows that smokers of these brands falsely believe they are less harmful, or represent a step toward quitting. A landmark 2001 report by the National Cancer Institute concluded unequivocally that "current evidence does not support either claims of reduced harm or policy recommendations to switch to these products."
Presented with this history and a trove of internal tobacco industry documents exposing the companies’ duplicity, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler concluded in 2006 that the "light and low" deception was part of an industry pattern of illegality. Ruling in the civil racketeering lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, Kessler stated the "light and "low" scheme was intended to "keep smokers smoking; to stop smokers from quitting; to encourage people, especially young people, to start smoking; and to maintain or increase corporate profits."
The Deception Continues Globally
Even as the United States and a growing number of countries ban terms such as "light" and "low," the tobacco industry continues to introduce and aggressively market such brands, with the same dishonest strategies, in the many countries that have not acted. The companies are especially targeting developing nations where consumers are only now becoming fully aware of the health risks of smoking. Countries that have seen large increases in sales of purportedly lower-tar cigarettes in recent years include China, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.
The international tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, obligates its 168 ratifying nations to ban any label or practice that "directly or indirectly" misleads consumers that a particular tobacco product is less harmful than others. To prevent the tobacco industry from perpetuating the light and low-tar lie globally, it is critical that nations aggressively enforce this and other provisions of the treaty.