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Light Cigarettes Just As Deadly as Regular Versions, and Tobacco Companies Knew It

Nov 13, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Light cigarettes are just as deadly as regular cigarettes, but tobacco companies kept that information to themselves.   According to a newly released Philip Morris memo from 1975, the cigarette makers were aware that smokers of light cigarettes took longer puffs and inhaled larger amounts of tar than those who smoked other version.   Now, a Senate committee is asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) why it still allows cigarettes to be classified as regular, light and ultra-light versions even though none of these products offer consumers an increased measure of safety.

The Philip Morris memo was released by the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday in advance of today’s hearing into the FTC’s oversight of cigarette marketing.  The Philip Morris document said that puffs taken by smokers of light cigarettes contain more cancer-causing  tar than those from regular cigarettes.  It has been known for sometime that smokers assume that the “low tar” “light” and “ultralight” labels mean a cigarette is somehow safer than regular versions.  

The FTC allows the cigarette companies to use the regular, light, ultra light and low tar classifications as long as they are determined by a standardized system that uses a machine that smokes cigarettes the same way every time.  But people are not like machines, and some take deeper breaths and larger puffs than others.  It’s a known fact that smokers who switch to light cigarettes from regular cigarettes "compensate" for the lower nicotine level by inhaling more deeply; taking larger, more rapid, or more frequent puffs; or by increasing the number of cigarettes smoked per day. As a result, smokers cancel out any potential benefit of smoking a "low-tar" cigarette. The FTC itself has raised concerns about its testing methods and has admitted in prior congressional testimony that its "ratings tend to be relatively poor predictors of tar and nicotine exposure."

Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, a member of the committee has asserted that this makes light cigarettes even more dangerous than regular versions.   He is sponsoring legislation that would prohibit cigarette makers from using descriptions like “light” and “low tar” on labels or in advertising.

For their part, the tobacco companies claim that they have taken steps to inform their customers that cigarettes labeled “light” are no safer than other versions.  Philip Morris, for instance, acknowledges this fact on its website.  But the anti-smoking group, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, says that the advertising for light cigarettes often targets health conscious smokers.  And the National Cancer Institute conducted a survey in 2001 that found that the smokers most likely to use light cigarettes were also the ones most concerned about the toll smoking took on their health.

In addition to the FTC cigarette ratings system, the Senate committee will be taking a hard look at the FTC's jurisdiction over deceptive marketing and advertising practices used by the tobacco industry. The committee will explore tobacco companies' marketing of light cigarettes and cigarette design changes that further undermine the accuracy of the FTC test.


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