Big Tobacco's Slimy New Ploy to Trick Smokers Into Thinking There Are "Healthier" Cigarettes

June 22 marks the first time in American history that terms like light, ultra-light, low, mild and medium can no longer legally be used in the marketing and sale of cigarettes. The United States will be the 71st country (we're behind, of course) to outlaw the labeling of cigarettes as "light" -- an underhanded ploy promoting the idea that certain cigarettes have lower tar and nicotine content than others.

Given that "light" smokes account for about half the cigarette market, the antismoking legislation, passed last year, stands to throw a wrench in tobacco companies' deceptive marketing practices. But the tobacco industry is revving up to try to deceive smokers and potential smokers in different ways that may circumvent the new law.

Already major light brands are being repackaged with colors associated with, well, lightness. Camel Lights will be Camel Blues. Marlboro Lights and Ultra-Lights will, respectively, be Marlboro Gold and Silver. Pall Malls previously trumpeted as filtered, lights and lights menthol will now come in a rainbow of colors intended to convey tobacco "intensity" -- red, blue and orange.

The brains behind the $13-billion-a-year cigarette marketing industry know that colors and packaging make a difference. Research has shown that 79 percent of people think that cigarettes packaged in a light blue box contain less tar and are safer than those in a darker hued package. And certain colors -- like blue -- are perceived to be less strong than, say, red.

In other countries where the practice of labeling cigarettes "light" has been banned for a while, marketers have turned to using letters and numbers that similarly skew consumers' perception of the health drawbacks to smoking cigarettes, and ultimately deliver the "same messaging as light or low," says Gregg Haifley of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Big Tobacco goes to all this marketing trouble, of course, because it pays off.

The whole concept of light cigarettes was born of the Surgeon General's 1964 report that directly linked cigarettes and smoking to cancer and other diseases. Fearing a drop-off in smokers, the industry spun the story that you should pick light or mild cigarettes as an alternative to quitting. (Around that time, a cigarette brand called True featured a female tennis player saying: "Considering all I'd heard, I decided to either quit or smoke True." The athlete, naturally, picked True.)

Although contemporary cigarette companies officially claim only that "light really refers to flavor," they've been more than happy to let consumers reach their own conclusions.

Today, more than half of daily American smokers smoke brands marketed as some variation of light -- including nearly two-thirds of women who smoke. Studies have shown that smokers actually believe these cigarettes reduce health risks associated with original or regular options.

The truth is that people who smoke these products get cancer and other smoking-related diseases at the same rate as those who use regular tobacco products. Lower tar and lower nicotine claims stood up only to tests performed by -- get this -- a machine. "As smoked by humans, none of these cigarettes were less harmful. Smokers smoke more often and take more puffs," says Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research at Tobacco-Free Kids.

The steady stream of misleading information has persuaded millions of people to switch rather than quit. Today, more than 440,000 people die each year from tobacco-related disease in the United States. It is our number-one preventable cause of death.

This is why cancer-stick marketers have to be really good (read: nefarious) at their jobs, and why they focus on kids. After all, as Haifley points out, the "tobacco industry relies on a business model that basically generates generation after generation of addicted smokers because their product is deadly."

Nine out of 10 smokers picked up their first cigarette in their youth; each day, 4,000 more kids try a cigarette for the first time. The judge who ruled in the 2006 civil racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry's "light and low" practices noted that the deceptive marketing especially encouraged young people to smoke. Color-coding cigarettes is also expected to particularly affect kids' perceptions of cigarettes.

With lives on the line, last year's legislation finally gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority to keep Big Tobacco in check. Reacting to Marlboro's advertising campaign, "But Your Cigarette Stays the Same," which advised Marlboro Lights customers that they ought to now buy Marlboro Gold, the FDA has opened an investigation into Altria Group, the maker of Marlboro Lights.

Altria has until July 30 to produce all documents relating to the company's market research on consumer perceptions about color coding and health risks. (Before last year's bill passed, Altria would not have been required to produce such information.)

"If the FDA determines that color coding is used to convey reducing harm without meeting the standard for the claims" -- or if color coding is shown to produce the same deceptive messaging as light and low -- "then they can take action and ban that as well," says McGoldrick. The bill in effect "gives the FDA broad authority on dealing with what the industry will inevitably do to get around these restrictions."

The banning of light cigarettes is but one piece of the larger plan intended to curb the masterful marketing of cigarettes to Americans. The tobacco companies will challenge every law that makes it harder for them to sell their deadly products. Already, they are challenging one part of the antismoking legislation that would ban the use of color advertisements in places and publications that cater to youth. Meanwhile, the lawsuit, filed in Kentucky, is ongoing -- as is the deadly consumer fraud aimed at children.


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