Saturday, March 16, 2013
Big Tobacco Easily Evades “Light” Cigarette Ban
Color coding allows smokers to easily identify their former brands.
The tobacco industry has once again made a mockery of the Food and Drug Administration’s attempts to ban ‘light” cigarettes from the marketplace, by simply eliminated the objectionable wording and substituting an easily-decoded color scheme. In a brochure prepared for cigarette retailers marked “For trade use only: not to be shown or distributed to customers,” tobacco giant Philip Morris wrote that “some cigarettes and smokeless packaging is changing, but the product remains the same.”
Research done at Harvard demonstrates "the continued attempts of the industry to avoid reasonable regulation of tobacco products,” said Hillel Alpert, co-author of a new study on light cigarettes, in a prepared statement. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (FSPTCA) of 2009 highlights the banning of light cigarettes as a critical mission, since cigarettes marketed in this way are in fact no safer than regular cigarettes. What makes a cigarette Light or Ultra-light is a series of tiny holes drilled through the filter (See earlier post). This “filter ventilation” was calibrated to the descriptors: Ultra-lights had more holes drilled in the filter than Lights. Studies have demonstrated conclusively that such filter schemes do not make smoking safer or cut down on related diseases. A 2001 report from the National Cancer Institute documented how smokers were compensating for the ventilation holes by smoking more cigarettes, smoking them more intensely, or by blocking the filter holes with fingers or lips.
In a study for Tobacco Control, Gregory Connolly and Hillel Alpert of the Harvard School of Public Health documented the process. In 2010, Philip Morris sent manuals to retailers detailing how they were to deal with the new sales situation. Philip Morris made clear that “current pack descriptors such as light, ultra-light and mild will be removed from all packages.” All well and good. However, the Philip Morris material also specified how a series of new package names were to be doled out. Marlboro Light became Marlboro Gold. Marlboro Mild morphed into Marlboro Blue. And Marlboro Ultra-light reemerged as Marlboro Silver.
When the researchers commissioned a large public survey to document the state of affairs one year after the official “light” ban, they found that “88%-91% of smokers found it either ‘somewhat easy’ or ‘very easy’ to identify their usual brand of cigarettes by the banned descriptor names, Lights, Mediums or Ultra-Lights.” Sales figures for these brands in the first two quarters of 2010 were essentially unchanged, the authors report. They conclude that “the majority of smokers of brands in all categories correctly identified their brands’ pack color.”
The lesson here may well be that countries like Australia and the UK are on the right track: Plain packaging may be best. If lawmakers allow “misleading numbers, the use of colors, imagery, brand extensions, and other devices that contribute to deception” in place of words, nothing has really changed. “The findings of the present research strongly suggest that tobacco manufacturers have evaded one of the most important provisions of the FSPTCA for protecting the public health from the leading cause of preventable death and disease,” the authors conclude.
In a press release, co-author Gregory Connolly, director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at Harvard, explained that the industry “was found guilty by a federal court in 2006 for deceptively promoting ‘light’ cigarettes as safer after countless smokers who switched to lights died prematurely, thinking they had reduced their health risks.”
Connolly G.N. & Alpert H.R. (2013). Has the tobacco industry evaded the FDA's ban on 'Light' cigarette descriptors?, Tobacco Control, PMID: 23485704