Thursday, October 08, 2009

Yet Another Supposed Public Health Victory from the FDA Tobacco Law Goes Down the Tubes: Ban on "Light" Cigarettes Will Have No Effect

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.

In its propaganda supporting the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the Campaign suggested that this legislation would "end the tobacco industry's deceptive marketing of "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes."

However, according to new information released today by the Boston Globe, the ban on "light" and "low-tar" descriptors will have no effect because cigarette companies have developed a way to use colors in cigarette packaging to convey the same information that was previously conveyed through this terminology.

According to the article: "The cigarettes in the royal blue package aren’t Pall Mall Lights anymore. Now, they’re called Pall Mall Blues. Salem Lights, once sheathed in a kelly green box, are now cloaked in pastels and white, and known as Salem Gold Box. With the new branding, and use of hues shown to evoke feelings of smoothness and health, a leading tobacco company has revealed a subtle sales strategy for an era of unprecedented federal oversight: Let the colors speak to smokers in the same way the soon-to-be-banned words “mild,’’ “light,’’ and “ultralight’’ did. Harvard researchers and other tobacco control specialists see in the new monikers and lighter, brighter palettes evidence that cigarette producers are intent on subverting a new law that empowers the US Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco companies - including a provision that as of next June 22 will banish words that promote certain cigarettes as safer. Tobacco control specialists have long harbored particular contempt for “mild’’ and “light’’ cigarettes, arguing they manipulate smokers into thinking those brands are less harmful when there’s no scientific evidence to support that claim."

"R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, maker of the Pall Mall and Salem brands, denies attempting to bypass the law and says it is merely seeking to guide customers to their favorite brands. But researchers said they recognize the packaging changes as a tactic the industry has rolled out in other countries with stringent tobacco rules. Studies conducted in Canada and the United Kingdom, which both have a longer history of restricting tobacco industry marketing, found that smokers believe products labeled as “silver,’’ “gold,’’ or “smooth’’ are safer and easier to stop using than high-octane cigarettes. “These tricks are now well-established,’’ said Stanton Glantz, a tobacco control specialist at the University of California, San Francisco." ...

"Reynolds, the nation’s second-biggest cigarette company, makes no secret of its reason for altering the packaging. Company spokesman David Howard cited both the impending federal regulation and a federal court ruling - currently on hold - that would also expunge the mild and light names. “By using designations such as colors,’’ Howard said, “that makes it possible for retailers and adult tobacco consumers to clearly identify the different styles moving forward.’’ The manufacturer used focus groups and other research to arrive at the new package designs, already evident on four company brands and coming soon to three of its best-known products, Camel, Doral, and Winston. Harvard School of Public Health researcher Greg Connolly, former director of Massachusetts’ tobacco control program, said he noticed the changes on a stop at a West Virginia convenience store a few weeks back. Connolly decided to see what would happen when he asked the clerk for a pack of Salem Ultra Lights.“He gave me a pack of Salem Silvers, and I said, ‘No, no, no, where are the lights?’ ’’ Connolly recalled. “And he said, ‘These are lights, these are the same thing. All they’ve done is change the name because of the new federal requirement."

The Rest of the Story

This would all really not be so bad if it weren't for the fact that we (me and a small number of other tobacco control advocates who opposed the FDA tobacco legislation) predicted that exactly this scenario would unfold: the cigarette flavoring ban would have no effect because no cigarettes were actually affected by the ban (menthol cigarettes are exempt) and the "lights" ban would have no effect because cigarette companies would start using coloring to convey the differences between "lights" and other brands.

Of course, Philip Morris knew all of this going into its negotiations with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. So the question is whether the Campaign was simply outsmarted by Philip Morris or whether the Campaign actually knew that this was the case and decided to deliberately mislead its constituents and the public.

Either way, the rest of the story is that the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' and other anti-smoking groups' promises about the FDA tobacco legislation were false promises. They were pure propaganda, rather than science-based or evidence-based claims. And now the chickens are coming home to roost.

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