The health groups which supported the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act boasted that one of the great public health benefits of the legislation was that it would save lives by eliminating low yield cigarette descriptors such as "low-tar," "light," and "mild." Smokers would no longer be deceived into thinking that these low-yield cigarettes were safer than others.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids told the public that the ban on low yield descriptors was "one of the most significant provisions of the law." It asserted that this provision would "prevent tobacco industry deception about tar [and] nicotine levels."
The Rest of the Story
As I predicted years ago, the ban on low yield descriptors has now been shown to have no effect because cigarette companies simply substituted packaging colors to indicate what previously were the low-yield brands. For example, Marlboro Lights are now Marlboro Gold. Moreover, the research shows that smokers understand that these colors represent the low-yield brands and that they still believe that these brands convey lower health risks.
According to a press release summarizing the study findings: "Despite current prohibitions on the words 'light' and 'mild', smokers in Western countries continue falsely to believe that some cigarette brands may be less harmful than others. ... A study published today in the journal Addiction polled over 8000 smokers from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the USA. Approximately one-fifth of those smokers incorrectly believed that "some cigarette brands could be less harmful than others." False beliefs were highest among US smokers. Current research shows that smokers base their perceptions of risk on pack colour, believing that 'silver', 'gold' and 'white' brands are less harmful to smoke than 'black' or 'red' brands. The reason for those beliefs may lie in the history of cigarette branding. Cigarettes used to carry labels like 'light', 'mild', and 'low tar', and in some places they still do. But in over fifty countries cigarette manufacturers are no longer allowed to use those labels because they are misleading. In some cases, cigarette manufacturers simply changed their 'light' cigarettes to 'silver' and 'gold' brands -- for example, Marlboro Lights has become Marlboro Gold. A significant percentage of smokers now seem to equate those colours with low-risk cigarettes."
According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, two of the major public health victories from the passage of the FDA tobacco legislation -- which were supposed to save "countless lives" -- were the ban on flavored cigarettes and the ban on the use of descriptors like "light" and "low-tar" that mislead consumers into believing that these cigarettes are safer.
But one by one, these (false) promises have come tumbling to the ground.
First, it was the promise that the ban on flavored cigarettes would break the cycle of addiction by helping to end the tobacco industry's ability to addict our nation's children. The Campaign wrote that: "The ban on candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes is a critical step to end one of the most insidious tactics the tobacco industry has used to target and addict children."
But the truth came out: not a single product produced by Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, or Lorillard was affected by the cigarette flavoring ban, very few youths smoke products that are affected by the ban, and in the entire cigarette market, less than 0.2% of all cigarettes consumed are flavored cigarettes covered by the ban. The truth is that far from being a critical step to halt addiction, this aspect of the law does literally nothing to protect kids from addiction.
Now, it is the promise that the ban on descriptors such as "light" and "low-tar" will eliminate the deception of consumers, who are led to believe that these products are safer because of this terminology.
So far, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act has not done a single thing to substantially protect the public's health. It has done nothing to reduce youth smoking. It has done nothing to promote smoking cessation. And it has done nothing to make cigarettes safer.
It has, however, detracted attention and resources away from the proven measures that would have helped protect the public's health and actually save lives: allocating money to anti-smoking media campaigns in all 50 states.
Perhaps second only to the Master Settlement Agreement, I believe that the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act represents one of the greatest public health policy disasters of my lifetime.