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Deceptive Tobacco Marketing: Light Cigarettes Never Existed

Date Posted: August 9, 2011

V2 Cigs light cigarettesOn June 22, 2010 the FDA put an end to what is being referred to as one of the deadliest consumer fraud 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.  While many noticed the change in packaging, many are still in the dark about the details behind the change.

The US Food and Drug Administration has been battling tobacco companies and their marketing practices for years. Numerous studies show that smokers often believe that smoking cigarettes labeled as “light” or “ultra-light” will reduce the risks associated with smoking.  However, this could not be further from the truth as shown by internal industry documents. Tobacco companies were well aware of these facts, yet continued this highly profitable marketing scheme.

In a lawsuit brought against Philip Morris by the USA, Philip Morris’ own documents describe the only difference between “light” and full strength cigarettes as tiny holes in the paper lining the tobacco to increase air flow. In fact, this increased air flow makes the smoke more volatile in chemical structure, and more likely to cause cancer. This finding led to the decision banning Philip Morris and other tobacco companies from advertising their products as “light” in the USA. [1]

Industry documents also reveal that tobacco companies know how to graphically convey less harm without words, as exemplified by the following quote from a Philip Morris document:

“Lower delivery products tend to be featured in blue packs.  Indeed, as one moves down the delivery sector, then the closer to white a pack tends to become.  This is because white is generally held to convey a clean, healthy association.”

Millions of Americans smoke “low-tar,” “mild,” or “light” cigarettes, believing those cigarettes to be less harmful than other cigarettes. In a monograph released by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) titled Risks Associated with Smoking Cigarettes with Low Machine-Measured Yields of Tar and Nicotine, national scientific experts conclude that evidence does not indicate a benefit to public health from changes in cigarette design and manufacturing over the last 50 years. According to the NCI report, people who switch to light cigarettes from regular cigarettes are likely to inhale the same amount of tar and hazardous chemicals and they remain at high risk for developing smoking-related cancers and other diseases; light and low-tar cigarettes are nothing but a marketing scheme.

With the new regulations in effect, tobacco companies are using new tactics to thwart the new rules to perpetuate the deception and trickery. They have devised different strategies, including color packaging which is lighter for light brands and using new terminology such as “gold” and “silver” to replace “light” and “ultra-light”. In fact, as the ban was going into effect, tobacco companies reached out to consumers and retailers to inform them that their light or low-tar products were still available and that packaging alone had been modified, thus, despite the new regulations, once again advertising cigarettes as what many believe to be less dangerous tobacco products.

Tobacco companies even started distributing flyers to retailers explaining the switch from “light” and “low-tar” labels to the color-coded packaging and some companies included inserts in individual packages stating only the packaging had changed. “By stating that only the packaging is changing, but the cigarettes will stay the same, the insert 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.

The FDA continues, “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.”


[1] http://www.justice.gov/civil/cases/tobacco2/amended%20opinion.pdf

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