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New Warning For Smokers

Nov 21, 2002 | TIMES-DISPATCH

Philip Morris USA is sending a message to smokers: Don't assume that light and low-tar cigarettes are better for you than regular smokes.

Starting this month, the nation's largest cigarette company is putting leaflets into 130 million packs of cigarettes that warn smokers "there is no such thing as a safe cigarette."

The inserts inform smokers that the terms "light," "ultra-light," "medium" and "mild" do not mean they will inhale less tar and nicotine.

"This is part of our ongoing effort to communicate with the public about the health issues related to our products," said Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for the New York-based company that is a major employer in the Richmond area.

The company said yesterday it also has asked the Federal Trade Commission to enact new standards for determining cigarette tar and nicotine yields.

The moves are the latest effort by Philip Morris USA to present itself as a responsible manufacturer of tobacco products, even as it battles lawsuits filed by sick smokers, some of whom claim they were duped into thinking light and low-tar cigarettes are safer.

The European Union has voted to ban such descriptors, and tobacco-control groups say they should be outlawed in the United States, too. Yesterday, they criticized the Philip Morris inserts as nothing more than a public-relations ploy.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said the inserts "appear aimed at influencing jurors and policy-makers in order to avoid real changes in the company's harmful practices."

"If they [Philip Morris] are truly interested in having smokers understand there's no such thing as a safe cigarette, they should drop those designations," said Joel Spivak, a spokesman for the group.

Philip Morris says it uses descriptors only so customers can compare the tastes of different brands, but the company does think smokers need more information about health consequences, McCormick said.

The package inserts will reach about 86 percent of smokers who buy those brands, he said.

The FTC has required testing of the nicotine and tar content of cigarettes since the 1960s. In the current testing, known as the Cambridge Method, cigarettes are smoked by machines that measure tar and nicotine yields, which are then printed in all advertising and on some packages.

Critics say that method is flawed because people don't smoke the way the machines do. Last year, the National Cancer Institute published a report that said light and low-tar cigarettes offer no health advantages because smokers just inhale them more deeply or take more puffs to compensate for the lower nicotine.

In light of the cancer institute report, Philip Morris said it has submitted a petition to the FTC asking the agency to develop a "modified method" for determining tar and nicotine yields that "more accurately estimates the tar and nicotine inhaled by the smoker."

Another tobacco company, Chester-based Star Scientific Inc., voluntarily removed the light and ultra-light descriptors from its cigarette brand Vegas in April. Company spokeswoman Sara Machir said Vegas sales have slipped slightly since then, but the company isn't sure whether that's because the descriptor was dropped.

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