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Tobacco Industry Creates New Generation of Deceit

Jan 10, 2002 | USA Today

Promotions are popping up all over the country, in this week's People and Time, in February's Ladies Home Journal, giving consumers a false sense of security that newly developed brands of cigarettes are less risky.

"Reduced carcinogens. Premium taste," proclaim the national ads for Vector Tobacco's Omni. Advance, from Brown & Williamson Tobacco, promises in a pamphlet with every pack: "All of the taste Less of the toxins." R.J. Reynolds, the first on the market last year with its Eclipse brand, says it's less likely to cause cancer and bronchitis, "the next best choice" to quitting.

Yet there's no independent, government check on the companies' assertions, and no proof that the new cigarettes are less hazardous than others.

The industry's blatant claims repeat a deadly pattern from the 1960s, when it began promoting low-tar and "light" cigarettes as healthier choices — cigarettes since proved to be worthless at reducing health risks.

Now, as then, the public is being asked to take the tobacco industry's word about the safety of a product that kills 400,000 people a year. In doing so, consumers unwittingly become guinea pigs to test the safety of still-deadly products. The government has little authority to step in because Congress refuses to give it regulatory power over cigarettes.

Reducing carcinogens, the cancer-causing compounds in cigarettes, certainly sounds good, but the new processes may increase other harmful ingredients. Omni increases two, according to a news release from its maker, Vector, something the company "is committed to improving."

Worse, if history repeats, the ads may convince some smokers to switch, rather than quit. That's what happened when the industry promoted the first generation of low-tar cigarettes in the 1960s to combat growing concerns about smoking.

Instead of benefiting, smokers simply increased the number of cigarettes they smoked, or puffed harder to satisfy their addiction. Two months ago, the National Cancer Institute tallied the results. It reported that switching to low-tar and "light" brands does not offer any significant protection against lung cancer or other illnesses associated with smoking regular cigarettes.

Those scientific findings haven't stopped the tobacco industry from pushing its new generation of supposedly less-risky products. The companies can escape Food and Drug Administration scrutiny as long as they successfully argue that their ads don't make explicit health claims. Last month, several anti-smoking groups filed a petition with the FDA arguing that the industry is crossing that line, but winning will be tough.

The obvious solution would be for Congress to give the FDA clear authority to regulate tobacco products. But it has failed repeatedly to put public health before tobacco-industry wishes.

Until that changes, cigarette makers are under little pressure to rein in their own advertising or edit their claims about these supposedly less-risky cigarettes.

In an interview this week, Bennett LeBow, Vector's chief executive, gave an interesting appraisal of Omni's advantages for smokers. It "will not kill them as quick or as much" as other brands, he said.

Now that's a catchy slogan.

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