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Philip Morris Warns Smokers 'Light' Cigarettes Aren't Safer

Nov 20, 2002 | The Wall Street Journal Coming soon to a convenience store near you: the first of about 130 million packs of Philip Morris cigarettes with a special message for smokers stuck on the back.

The leaflet tucked under the cellophane wrap isn't a promotion enticing people to buy more Marlboros, Merits, or Parliaments. It's an extended warning that "light" and "ultra light" cigarettes are no safer than regular smokes.

In it, Philip Morris Cos. says that the tar and nicotine levels included in all cigarette ads aren't necessarily good indicators of how much of those substances smokers actually inhale. The company also tells smokers: "You should not assume" that so-called low-tar cigarettes are "less harmful than 'full flavor' cigarette brands or that smoking such cigarette brands will help you quit smoking."

For a limited time, the pamphlet will be put on every pack of "light," "ultra light," "mild" or "medium" cigarettes Philip Morris makes for sale in the U.S., and should reach about 86% of the smokers who buy those styles of its cigarettes, the company says.

Philip Morris's new-found desire to reach out so aggressively to its customers with this cautionary message comes as the company faces growing pressure from public-health advocates who say that descriptive terms such as "light" and "low-tar" are misleading and should be banned altogether.

The company's critics say that its current efforts are merely a pre-emptive strike designed to stave off more stringent limits on its marketing practices. "It's nothing more than a slick PR gesture designed to avoid more rigorous, needed regulation," says Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington advocacy group. Philip Morris's leaflet is not nearly enough to "undo the damage that decades of marketing light and low-tar cigarettes has caused," he says.

Michael Pfeil, a spokesman for Philip Morris, says the message about low-tar cigarettes is part of the company's "continuing effort to share with adult smokers information about the health risks of smoking." Mr. Pfeil adds: "It's the responsible thing to do to more broadly disseminate that information."

Late last year, the National Cancer Institute issued a report concluding that smokers who switch to low-tar cigarettes from regular smokes receive no health benefit (See release). In part, that's because smokers tend to take bigger, more frequent puffs of light cigarettes in order to inhale more nicotine. The report also said smokers, many of whom do think low-tar cigarettes are safer, had been misled by ads for light cigarettes.

Light cigarettes took off in popularity and production in the 1970s, with advertising then targeted at people worried about the health effects of smoking and thinking about quitting. A pitch for True cigarettes used at the time by Loews Corp.'s Lorillard Tobacco unit: "Considering all I'd heard, I decided to either quit or smoke True. I smoke True."

The NCI report has fueled calls in the U.S. for the government to stop cigarette companies from using words such as "light" and "mild" to describe their brands. The European Union already has passed a law that will bar use of such terms starting next year. And a blue-ribbon committee in Canada has recommended that country, too, ban them.

After the NCI report was released, the major U.S. tobacco companies didn't take any immediate action. But one small manufacturer, Star Scientific Inc. removed the "light" moniker from one of its brands as a test. Star says it's too soon to speak definitively about the results of its test, but early indications are that sales of the cigarettes have declined somewhat.

Philip Morris and other cigarette makers face legal challenges from people who allege that they were deceived by tobacco companies' marketing of light cigarettes. An Oregon jury earlier this year hit Philip Morris with $150.2 million in damages in the case of a woman who died after smoking low-tar Merit cigarettes. The jurors found, among other things, that Philip Morris had made false claims that light cigarettes were safer. Philip Morris is appealing the verdict.

The huge leaflet drop is also a part of Philip Morris's ongoing good-corporate-citizen campaign. This month the company has put 15.8 million inserts in newspapers across the country that discuss issues ranging from the health consequences of cigarette use to quitting smoking and second-hand smoke.

In September, Philip Morris also petitioned the Federal Trade Commission, asking the agency to revise its rules on tar and nicotine disclosures, in part to lay out definitions of what constitutes "light" and "ultra light" cigarettes so the use of those terms will be explicitly allowed. Among other things, the company said the FTC should require cigarette makers to include disclaimers in their ads for low-tar cigarettes, suggesting messages such as: "The amount of tar delivered by any cigarettes depends on how a person smokes the cigarette."

But Philip Morris argued in its filing that the FTC should not bar tobacco companies from continuing to use terms such as "light" and "mild" in describing cigarettes. Such terms, the company said, "provide information relating to differences in taste" among cigarettes.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' Mr. Myers says he thinks Philip Morris's new push is "another sign that Philip Morris intends to move aggressively after the elections" to try to set an agenda for tobacco regulation in Washington that will advance its interests. Philip Morris has been lobbying Congress for nearly three years to give the FDA jurisdiction over tobacco products because it thinks business would be more predictable with a clear set of regulations. But Mr. Myers vowed that he and his colleagues would fight to block any bill that they think is too weak.

At the moment, protecting its ability to market light and low-tar cigarettes seems to be at the top of Philip Morris's list. The company and other cigarette makers have invested a lot of money in light cigarettes. Low-tar cigarettes now account for more than 60% of the market, and the companies are loath to give up the powerful identifying words they have spent years burning into smokers' minds. If they lose the battle, executives cling to the hope that smokers are sufficiently programmed to order by color, asking for "Marlboro Golds" even if the word "light" is expunged.

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