Smokers are misled about low tar cigarettes

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 22 March 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:845
  1. Caroline White
  1. London

    Low tar cigarettes are not a healthier option than regular brands, primarily because of the way they are smoked.

    This finding comes in a survey published in Tobacco Control (1996;5:265-70). The researchers claim that the tobacco industry has deliberately failed to inform people of the problem. Up to 40% of the 600 adult smokers surveyed across the United States had neither seen nor heard about the filter vents on low tar brands of cigarettes that are designed to dilute with air the inhaled yield of nicotine, tar, and carbon monoxide. Two thirds of them did not realise that blocking the vents with their lips or fingers during smoking can almost double the yield of these substances. In 1995 almost 60% of cigarettes sold in the United States were low yield brands.

    “The cigarette industry has acknowledged that vent blocking can happen, but it disputes the prevalence of the problem,” say the researchers from Penn State University, Pennsylvania, where the survey was carried out. “Compensatory” smoking, whereby larger and more frequent puffs are taken–often subconsciously to increase the taste of low yield cigarettes–is well known in the industry. But the researchers say that manufacturers could do more to alert people about filter vents. “For a design feature so subject to behavioural subversion to be kept secret from the smoker is comparable to keeping secret from car drivers the existence of the speedometer or safety belt,” they say.

    The parameters that are used to confer low yield status on cigarettes are arbitrary, says Dr Martin Jarvis of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's health behaviour unit in London. “They were plucked out of the air by an industry person in 1936 and are not based on human patterns of smoking.” In Britain voluntary agreements since 1972 have succeeded in reducing the tar in cigarettes from 19 mg to 11 mg. Low tar brands account for a quarter of British cigarette sales. “The whole question of the public understanding of what low tar cigarettes mean is poor, and the industry in some ways fosters that misunderstanding,” Dr Jarvis said.

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