“LIGHT” AND “LOW TAR” PRODUCT DESCRIPTORS MISLEAD CONSUMERS
Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – Article 11
Packaging and labeling of tobacco products
1. Each Party shall, within a period of three years after entry into force of this Convention for that Party, adopt and implement, in accordance with its national law, effective measures to ensure that:
(a) tobacco product packaging and labeling do not promote a tobacco product by any means that are false, misleading, deceptive or likely to create an erroneous impression about its characteristics, health effects, hazards or emissions, including any term, descriptor, trademark, figurative or any other sign that directly or indirectly creates the false impression that a particular tobacco product is less harmful than other tobacco products. These may include terms such as “low tar”, “light”, “ultra-light”, or “mild.”
The evidence is clear that terms such as “low-tar,” “light,” “ultra-light” and “mild” mislead consumers into believing that some cigarettes are less hazardous than others. However, years of research shows cigarettes labeled as “light” and “low tar” have not resulted in a meaningful reduction in the disease burden or health risks caused by cigarette use either for smokers as a group or for the population as a whole. A landmark November 2001 report by the National Cancer Institute (U.S.) concluded that the marketing of these products as delivering less tar and reducing smokers’ health risks is “deceptive” and smokers’ choice of these products as an alternative to quitting makes this deception an “urgent public health issue.” In the interest of public health, countries should prohibit these misleading terms, along with other descriptors, numbers or symbols giving the false impression that some cigarettes are less hazardous than others.
The Rise of “Light” and “Low-tar” Cigarettes:
As the public began to understand the link between smoking and disease, cigarette companies, fearing a massive loss in sales, scrambled to develop products that would ease consumers’ fears about the health effects of smoking. This quote from the internal files of British American Tobacco’s American subsidiary in 1977 illustrates the industry’s approach:
“All work in this area should be directed towards providing consumer reassurance about cigarettes and the smoking habit. This can be provided in different ways, e.g. by claimed low deliveries, by the perception of low deliveries and by the perception of ‘mildness’. Furthermore, advertising for low delivery or traditional brands should be constructed in ways so as not to provoke anxiety about health, but to alleviate it, and enable the smoker to feel assured about the habit and confident in maintaining it over time.”
To reassure consumers, the companies introduced “low-tar” and “light” cigarettes, which took their name from the fact that when measured by smoking machines, these cigarettes delivered less tar and nicotine. Internal tobacco industry documents show the industry deliberately designed these cigarettes to produce low yields of tar when tested by machines, knowing full well that they would be smoked differently by actual smokers seeking to maintain nicotine levels. Despite knowing this, the cigarette companies marketed them as safer products. On August 17, 2006, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler issued a final opinion in the U.S. government’s landmark lawsuit against the major tobacco companies. In addition to finding that the companies violated civil racketeering laws and lied for decades about the health risks of smoking, Judge Kessler also found that the companies “falsely marketed and promoted low tar/light cigarettes as less harmful than full-flavor cigarettes in order to keep people smoking and sustain corporate revenues.” For health-conscious adults who wanted to quit smoking but were unable to do so because they were addicted, switching to cigarettes with lower tar and nicotine yields seemed to be an attractive alternative.
Smoker Impressions of “Light” and “Low-tar” Cigarettes:
A number of scientific surveys have examined how smokers perceive “light,” “ultra light” and “low tar” cigarettes and their motivations for smoking these brands. The studies conclude that many smokers of “light” and “ultra light” cigarettes mistakenly believe that these cigarettes have lower tar. Many consumers also assume that these products present less of a health risk than other cigarettes.
The desire to reduce health risks is a key motivation for smoking “light” cigarettes. Despite the fact that many smokers choose “light” or “ultra light” cigarettes to reduce their exposure to tar and nicotine, and smoking risks in general, 9 out of 10 smokers did not know that one “ultra light” cigarette could deliver the same amount of tar as one regular cigarette. And more than one quarter of the “light” and “ultra light” smokers said they would be likely to quit if they knew this information.
Smoking “light” cigarettes can be a barrier to quitting. Formerly confidential tobacco industry documents, made public in legal proceedings against the industry, reveal that tobacco companies introduced and marketed “light” and “ultra light” brands to provide an alternative to quitting to smokers who were increasingly concerned about their health. The documents reveal that the tobacco companies knew that “low tar” cigarettes may keep smokers from quitting. A 1978 Imperial Tobacco document says “We have evidence of virtually no quitting among smokers of these brands, and there are indications that the advent of ultra low tar cigarettes has actually retained some potential smokers in the cigarette market by offering them a viable alternative.”
The Evidence Is Clear That “Light” and “Low-tar” Cigarettes Are Not Less Harmful:
The scientific evidence has shown that, in practice, “light” cigarettes have not produced a public health benefit and have not lowered disease risk among smokers. In November 2001, the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) released a landmark study on the subject. The report found that while changes in cigarette design have reduced the amount of tar and nicotine measured by smoking machines, these machine measurements do not accurately show how much tar and nicotine is actually received by the smoker. There is in fact no meaningful difference in exposure from smoking low-tar and regular brands, and therefore no difference in disease risk. That is because smokers smoke low-tar brands differently to obtain the same amount of nicotine. Smokers block ventilation holes; inhale more deeply; take larger, more rapid, or more frequent puffs; or increase the number of cigarettes smoked per day.
The NCI report concluded that “Epidemiological and other scientific evidence, including patterns of mortality from smoking-caused diseases, does not indicate a benefit to public health from changes in cigarette design and manufacturing over the last fifty years.” The report noted that while “many smokers switch to lower yield cigarettes out of concerns for their health believing these cigarettes to be less risky or to be a step towards quitting…current evidence does not support either claims of reduced harm or policy recommendations to switch to these products.”
A more recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that smoking cigarettes labeled as “low-tar” and “ultra-low-tar” does not reduce a smoker’s risk of developing lung cancer compared to smoking regular brands.
The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) prohibits misleading or deceptive terms on tobacco product packages. Although the treaty does not specify the terms that Parties must ban, the scientific evidence supports banning the use of terms such as “light”, “mild”, “low tar”, etc. However, descriptive words are just one of the methods employed by the tobacco industry to convey the “lightness” of products. Cigarette companies are devising ways of getting around bans on misleading descriptors. Alternative marketing is already being practiced in some countries; for example, particular colors are used in cigarette packaging and advertising to denote “light” from regular brands. Therefore, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Tobacco Product Regulation recommended that any such ban should “include not only misleading terms and claims but also names, trademarks, imagery and other means to conveying the impression that the product provides a health benefit.”
Several government entities have already taken steps towards banning deceptive labeling on tobacco products:
Australia. After a lengthy investigation, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) found that the country’s three major tobacco companies represented that low yield cigarettes had certain health benefits in relation to those marketed as regular or higher yield. The ACCC found these claims to be misleading and in 2005 required the tobacco companies to remove “light,” “mild” and similar descriptors (including numbers) from their products. In addition, the companies cannot make claims about the health benefits of low yield cigarettes when compared to higher yield brands.
Brazil. On March 28, 2001, the Agencia Nacional de Vigilancia Sanitaria (the national health
agency of Brazil), issued a resolution prohibiting the use of “any type of descriptor” on
tobacco products “produced, transported, marketed and/or stored on national territory or
imported” in Brazil. The exact language from the Brazilian resolution (effective November 28, 2001) states, “It is prohibited to use any type of descriptor, on the packaging or in advertising material, such as: classes (s), ultra low tar, low tar, smooth, light, soft, leve, moderate tar, high or any others that could induce consumers to an erroneous interpretation as to the tar contained in cigarettes.”
Canada. On May 31, 2001 the Canadian Government called on the tobacco industry to voluntarily stop the use of misleading descriptors such as “light” and “low tar.” In November 2001, the Canadian Health Minister announced he would proceed to ban these terms from cigarettes sold in Canada. Five years later, in November 2006, the Competition Bureau reached an agreement with the country’s three major cigarette manufacturers to stop using the terms “light” and “mild” on cigarette packages. The Commissioner of Competition said that the companies “agreed to voluntarily discontinue use of these descriptors in advance of anticipated regulations requiring their removal.” The companies will start phasing out use of the terms at the end of 2006, and they will be completely gone from packaging by August 2007.
Public health groups are urging the government to continue with the regulation process and take additional action to protect consumers, including prohibiting the use of misleading colors or numbers, and prohibiting the “marketing and display of cigarettes in ways that falsely conveys distinctions between types of cigarettes.”
European Union. In response to concerns that the terms “light”, “low tar”, and “mild” “mislead the consumer into the belief that such products are less harmful,” on June 5, 2001, the European Union (EU) issued a directive that bans all misleading descriptors on tobacco
products. The exact language of the EU directive states, “With effect from 30 September 2003, and without prejudice to Article 5(1), texts, names, trademarks and figurative or other signs suggesting that a particular tobacco product is less harmful than others shall not be used on the packaging of tobacco products.”
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, November 29, 2006
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2 Risks Associated with Smoking Cigarettes with Low Machine-Yields of Tar and Nicotine; Report of the NCI Expert Committee. National Institutes of Health. National Cancer Institute. Smoking and Tobacco Control Monograph 13.
3 Kessler Final Opinion at 740. http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/reports/doj/FinalOpinion.pdf
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7 Kozlowski, L.T., et al., “Smokers’ Misperceptions of Light and Ultra-Light Cigarettes May Keep Them Smoking,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 15(1): 9-16 (July 1998).
8 SACTob Conclusions on Health Claims Derived from ISO/FTC Method to Measure Cigarette Yield. Scientific Advisory Committee on Tobacco Product Regulation (2003). http://www.who.int/tobacco/global_interaction/tobreg/en/iso_ftc_en.pdf
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13 SACTob Conclusions on Health Claims Derived from ISO/FTC Method to Measure Cigarette Yield. Scientific Advisory Committee on Tobacco Product Regulation (2003). http://www.who.int/tobacco/global_interaction/tobreg/en/iso_ftc_en.pdf
14 Australian Competition and Consumer Commission News Release, “ACCC resolves ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarette issue with B.A.T. and Philip Morris,” May 2, 2005. http://www.accc.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/683533/fromItemId/632284
15 Australian Competition and Consumer Commission News Release, “ACCC resolves ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarette investigation with Imperial Tobacco,” November 7, 2005. http://www.accc.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/713217/fromItemId/2332
16 Competition Bureau News Release, “Competition Bureau Reaches Agreement with the Three Major Cigarette Manufacturers to Stop Using “light” and “mild” on Cigarette Packages,” November 9, 2006. http://www.competitionbureau.gc.ca/internet/index.cfm?itemID=2228&lg=e
17 Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada News Release, “Anti-smoking group slams voluntary agreement reached with tobacco companies,” November 9, 2006. http://www.smoke-free.ca/eng_home/news_press_2006-11-09.htm