Tobacco companies are evading FDA ban on “light” cigarette labeling, finds study

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 19 March 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1806
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. 1London

Smokers in the United States can easily identify “light” cigarettes by the color coding that tobacco companies have added to packs since the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of words such as “low” or “mild” on packaging and advertising, a study has found.1

Since June 2010, tobacco companies have been banned from using explicit or implicit descriptors that convey messages of reduced risk unless they can prove to the FDA that the product significantly reduces the risk of tobacco related disease.

“Light” cigarettes have ventilation holes that allow air to mix with smoke, which companies said would limit the smoke inhaled. But research has suggested that smokers ingest as much tar and nicotine as with regular cigarettes by smoking more intensely and more often.

Researchers from the Center for Global Tobacco Control at Harvard School of Public Health examined manuals provided to retailers by the tobacco company Philip Morris, manufacturers’ annual reports, results from a 2011 national public opinion survey, and cigarette sales data to see whether companies were complying with the ban.

Philip Morris removed the terms “light,” “ultra-light,” and “mild” from cigarette packs and substituted new color descriptors. The Marlboro Light brand was renamed Marlboro Gold, Marlboro Mild was renamed Marlboro Blue, and Marlboro Ultra-light became Marlboro Silver. Other companies made similar changes, the researchers found.

Despite the changes in name and pack color, the cigarettes remained unchanged. A Philip Morris brochure explained to retailers: “Some cigarette and smokeless packaging is changing, but the product remains the same.” It added that this was for trade use only and was not to be shown to consumers.

One year after the ban 88-91% of smokers taking part in the public opinion survey found it “very easy” or “somewhat easy” to identify their usual brand of cigarettes by the banned descriptor terms. Just over two thirds (68%) of smokers correctly associated the substitute color on cigarette packs with the banned terms.

Hillel Alpert, research scientist at Harvard School of Public Health and one of the authors of the study, said, “Tobacco manufacturers appear to have circumvented the ban on Lights descriptors by intentionally substituting color brand name descriptors. This study demonstrates the continued attempts of the industry to avoid reasonable regulation of tobacco products.”

FDA draft guidance states that companies must “follow an appropriate regulatory pathway to market” where the name of a cigarette brand is changed. The researchers pointed out that companies failed to apply to have the renamed products approved as “new products.”

They suggest that the FDA could remove the modified brands from the market and require companies to apply for new tobacco product applications. Tobacco companies would need to show that proposed packaging does not create misleading perceptions of safety.

“A review of industry practices following similar bans in other countries concluded that nations should ban Lights descriptors and misleading numbers, the use of colors, imagery, brand extensions, and other devices that contribute to deception,” concluded the researchers. “The FDA appears to have the authority to do this . . . to end the deception of reduced risk associated with cigarette descriptor terms.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346L:f1806