On June 22, 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took action to end one of the deadliest consumer frauds in history: It banned the use of the deceptive terms “light,” “mild” and “low-tar” in the marketing and sale of cigarettes in the United States.
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 that were 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.
Despite the new 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.”
As the ban was about to take effect, tobacco companies informed retailers and consumers that the very same “light” or “low-tar” products are still available, but with changed packaging that is coded by color.
Philip Morris distributed a flyer to retailers detailing the switch from “light” and “low” labels to color-coded brands and packaging. (Marlboro Lights was renamed Marlboro Gold, while Marlboro Ultra Lights became Marlboro Silver). Similarly, R.J. Reynolds changed Salem Lights and Ultra Lights to “Gold Box” and “Silver Box”
Philip Morris also affixed “onserts” to individual packages that read:
YOUR MARLBORO LIGHTS PACK IS CHANGING
BUT YOUR CIGARETTE STAYS THE SAME
IN THE FUTURE, ASK FOR ‘MARLBORO IN THE GOLD PACK.’
Tobacco companies have used similar strategies in scores of countries around the world that have already banned terms such as “light” and “low-tar”. Initial studies show that 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 has demanded that Philip Morris turn over all market research it has conducted or possesses on how consumers react to changes in the Marlboro Lights package, including their perceptions about the new gold packs. The agency initiated the action because of the package “onserts."
“By stating that only the packaging is changing, but the cigarettes will stay the same, the onsert suggests that Marlboro in the gold pack will have the same characteristics as Marlboro Lights, including any mistaken attributes associated with the ‘light’ cigarettes,” the FDA said in a letter to Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris USA.
Under the new tobacco regulation law, tobacco companies may not use any marketing that explicitly or implicitly suggests a cigarette brand is less harmful than others. The FDA has full authority to take further steps to stop this deadly ruse.
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.
Global sales of “light” and “ultra low-tar” cigarettes have increased dramatically, from 423 billion cigarettes sold in 1998 to nearly 756 billion sold in 2008, according to Euromonitor International.
The international tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, obligates 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.
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." Click the graphic below to watch this deceptive ad:
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.”
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.”