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Lighter Cigarettes by Any Other Name Would Kill as Many Smokers

Products once labeled as lighter and milder are still sold. Even if labeled with random letters in plain white packs, consumers through tasting can identify the milder, lighter, smoother brands, and need to know that such brands are not linked to any reduced risks.
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1. Light or mild cigarette labels are gone, but the cigarettes themselves go on.

In 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sought to protect smokers from mistaken beliefs that cigarettes labeled as light, low, or mild were less dangerous (even a little) than "higher-tar" or full-flavor cigarettes. Such lower-tar products did not reduce the disease risks from cigarettes, yet many smokers thought that they did. Since July 2010, manufacturers could not label or advertise cigarettes with these or similar descriptors. But labeling or advertising changes need to be supported by ongoing promotion to smokers that milder-tasting cigarettes are not at all safer than other cigarettes. Label changes alone may do little to protect smokers from believing that "milder" means "safer," because these products actually do taste milder.

2. Revised brand images still indicate lighter and milder.

Names changed, but the looks of packs remained similar or color-coded, so consumers could easily find ultra-light, light, or full-flavor brands. Which color would you guess would be linked with the stronger cigarette: a lighter color or an intense red? It has been charged that companies, by their marketing changes, bypassed the intent of the FDA law.

3. Lighter, milder tastes mislead.

Products once labeled as lighter and milder are still sold. Even if labeled with random letters in plain white packs, consumers through tasting can identify the milder, lighter, smoother brands, and need to know that such brands are not linked to any reduced risks. The testimony of the senses can be persuasive. Lighter tasting cigarettes have more filter ventilation. (Invisible vent holes on filters can be seen by cutting off the filter wrap, holding it up to a light and using a magnifying glass.) These vents make an air-diluted puff taste milder, but then larger puffs can deliver the same level of tar, as would a smaller undiluted puff. If a cigarette seems less irritating, it is natural to assume that it may also be less dangerous. What you get from any cigarette depends on how much you puff on it.

4. Lighter-tasting cigarettes are not safer.

The FDA stresses: "No matter what they taste, smell, or look like, all cigarettes are harmful to your health. There's no such thing as a safe cigarette." Unfortunately, this claim misses a key fact for smokers: Smokers can understand that there is "no safe cigarette" and at the same time believe that some cigarettes may be safer than others. The FDA should be discouraged from promoting only the "not safe" message, when it is also known that the product is "not safer." Also, if products (for example, some smokeless tobacco products or nicotine replacement products) are known to be safer (even though not safe), the FDA should be so informing the public.

5. Misleading yet official tar and nicotine yields were part of the problem.

From 1966 to 2008, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tested cigarettes for tar and nicotine yields; the FTC stopped because the tests did "not provide meaningful information on the amounts of tar and nicotine smokers receive from cigarettes." The tar test results encouraged smokers to smoke lower tar cigarettes. Broad tar-yield categories, ultra-light, light, and full flavor, were very reliably linked to tar test results, and smokers became more aware of these categories than exact tar yields.

6. Beliefs about mildness have a history of causing trouble.

In their early years (late 1800s to early 1900s), cigarettes were believed safer than cigars, because they were so mild that you could inhale them -- and the harshness of cigars could make it difficult to inhale. Ironically, it was the ease of inhaling cigarettes that caused the dramatic rise in lung disease (lung cancer, obstructive lung disease) from cigarette smoke. It took decades of cigarette smoking in the 20th century to cause the increase in lung cancer deaths; previously, physicians rarely saw lung cancer in their patients. (In the 1960s, a new mistaken perception that cigars were safer than cigarettes grew out of interpretations of epidemiological research, discussed in another blog.)

7. Don't be fooled by a smooth taste and mild imagery: one milder cigarette = one full-flavor cigarette.

For health risks, one lighter cigarette is just as dangerous as one stronger-tasting cigarette: 1 = 1. While industry research does show that brand imagery does influence perceptions of products, cigarettes do have essential taste properties. Some smokers smoke milder cigarettes out of taste preference with no belief about or concerns for risk reduction. Mistaken beliefs or perceptions about cigarettes can keep health-concerned smokers smoking. Safer cigarette smoking is a myth. In contrast, non-burned e-cigarettes could also provide a reassuring mildness in taste, but they actually do reduce risks of nicotine use in comparison to cigarettes. See this other blog for more information on e-cigs. Three in five smokers will die early. Tobacco quit-lines are easily reached and do help smokers quit.

8. Slight fixes make slight progress in decreasing deaths from smoking.

The chemistry of cigarette taste is as much of a reality as the chemistry of chocolate taste. For example, boosting the percent cacao in chocolate does increase bitterness, and a label or packaging change would not itself make consumers blind to the clear taste differences as chocolate ranges from "milk" to "dark." Industry research on cigarette tastes has made clear that "strength," "harshness," "irritation," and "mildness" are primary ways that smokers discriminate among cigarettes. Cutting out the mild, smooth names is largely a sham operation that trims the problem of safer-seeming cigarettes, but does not touch the core deception arising from milder, smoother tastes unlinked to any saving of lives.

For more by Lynn T. Kozlowski, Ph.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.