Tobacco industry deceived public with ‘low tar’ cigarettes

The tobacco industry has deliberately deceived the public with “low tar/light” cigarettes, reveals an analysis in a special supplement to Tobacco Control. Industry documents show that companies recognised that low tar products were as dangerous as regular cigarettes, yet marketed them as healthy alternatives.

The authors analysed trade sources and internal US tobacco company documents. These show that the industry feared mounting evidence linking tobacco with lung cancer would discourage smokers from their habit, and devised ‘low tar/light’ products in a bid to reassure them. Vast sums of money were spent on promotion – US$44 million in the case of Philip Morris for one brand in 1976 alone.

The authors chart the various tactics deployed by the industry. These included branding cigarettes as “hi-fi” or high filtration, the implication being their ability to reduce, if not totally eliminate, the health risks associated with smoking. The filtering ploy was variously described in industry documents as “an effective advertising gimmick,” “merely cosmetic,” and offering “the image of health reassurance.” Low tar smokers were described as wanting “nothing less than to be conned with information.”

Some versions, including menthol or loosening filter cigarettes, actually delivered more tar and nicotine than unfiltered cigarettes. Other techniques included adding a “virtuous [filtered] product” to an existing line, which was heavily promoted but rarely available for sale, duping consumers into confusing the two products, say the authors.

“Virtuous brand names and descriptors”, such as Merit, Life, True and ‘Mild’, ‘Ultra’, ‘Light’ and ‘Superlight’ were also used to convey a healthy image. British American Tobacco wrote of its marketing policy: “All work in this area should be directed towards providing consumer reassurance about cigarettes and the smoking habit…by claimed low deliveries, by the perception of low deliveries, and by the perception of mildness.”

The industry used machine derived tar yield figures which do not reflect the actual levels of smoke toxicity likely to be accrued during the act of smoking. “Such products could be advertised as ‘tar-free,’ ‘zero milligrams tar’ or the ‘ultimate low tar cigarette’ while actually delivering 20, 30, 40 mg or more tar when used by a human smoker. They will be extremely easy to design and produce,” said a document from Brown and Williamson, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco.

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