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U.S. Should Follow European Union in Banning Deceptive Cigarette Descriptors Such as 'Light' and 'Mild'

Statement of William V. Corr, Executive Vice President Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
December 10, 2002

Washington, D.C. — The ruling today by the European Union Court of Justice to uphold a ban on deceptive cigarette descriptors such as 'light' and 'mild' sets an example for the world and is an important step toward ending the tobacco industry's deception about its deadly products. The EU's action is appropriate and necessary in light of the overwhelming evidence, as confirmed by a U.S. National Cancer Institute study released in November 2001, that the tobacco companies for decades have deceptively marketed 'light', 'mild' and 'low-tar' cigarettes as reducing smokers' health risks despite knowing from their own research that these cigarettes were no safer than other brands.

The EU's action shows that the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in protecting its citizens from the dangers of tobacco. Consumers in the U.S. and other countries also deserve to be protected from tobacco industry deception. Congress should enact legislation granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration effective authority to regulate tobacco products, including the authority to ban deceptive descriptors such as 'light', 'mild' and 'low-tar' or other means, such as package coloring or advertising, that convey the false impression that one tobacco product is less harmful than others. In addition, U.S. negotiators to the proposed international tobacco treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), should support a treaty provision that would ban the use of such terms, which the U.S. so far has failed to do.

Until governments act, the tobacco companies should immediately stop using these deceptive terms. Unfortunately, the tobacco industry has continually opposed measures that would restrict its ability to market 'light' and 'low tar' brands, which constitute 82 percent of all cigarettes sold in the United States. In the U.S., Philip Morris has asked the Federal Trade Commission to issue a rule allowing the continued use of such terms and has sought to head off a ban by placing in cigarette packs a woefully inadequate insert purporting to inform smokers about the meaning of these terms. In Canada, Philip Morris has threatened to challenge a proposed ban on misleading descriptors as a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and an international agreement on patents and trademarks. If the tobacco companies are serious about protecting public health, they should voluntarily stop using these deceptive terms, support a strong FCTC, stop using trade law as a tool to thwart effective tobacco control policies, and support meaningful FDA authority over tobacco products.