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14-03-2013 | Article

Color-based cigarette labels still misguide consumers

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medwireNews: Tobacco manufacturers continue to use deceptive descriptors that lead consumers to assume a reduced health risk from smoking certain brands of cigarettes over others, concludes a Harvard School of Public Health study.

The public opinion survey representative of the adult population in the USA was conducted 1 year after a 2010 law banned the use of explicit or implicit descriptors that convey messages of reduced risk in a tobacco product, label, labeling or advertising.

After interviewing 510 smokers, researchers report in Tobacco Control that more than 90% deemed it "somewhat easy" to "very easy" to still identify their usual brand of cigarettes according to banned descriptor names, such as "Marlboro Lights," despite being renamed "Marlboro Gold." The actual cigarettes have remained the same.

A majority (68%) of smokers was able to associate the color-coding on their cigarette packages that substitute the banned labeling with the prohibited terms.

"The tobacco industry was found guilty by federal court in 2006 for deceptively promoting 'light' cigarettes as safer after countless smokers who switched to lights died prematurely, thinking they had reduced their health risks," study co-author, Gregory Connolly (Harvard University, Boston), said in a press release.

"[Now] the industry [is] using new and sophisticated ways to deceive consumers and has not sought Food and Drug Administration [FDA] approval for these products as required by law."

An examination of retailer manuals and annual reports that were filed with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that manufacturers simply removed the terms that were explicitly mentioned in the law and replaced them with new color terms pertaining to the various light brand name descriptors.

The marketing of cigarettes under the term of "Light" catapulted after the US Surgeon General concluded in 1964 that smoking causes disease. Manufacturers claimed the term reflected varying degrees of air intake through the filter, which affects how much smoke is inhaled. The premise of a cigarette being called "light" hinges on this principle of ventilation.

In 2001, the National Cancer Institute found that this lower yield that light cigarettes offered was cancelled out by more intense and frequent smoking as well as tampering with the ventilation holes - the properties of which are now reflected by the new labeling.

"Far more important to the public health would be to ensure that the [tobacco] industry does not misuse [market regulations] or the FDA regulatory process to perpetuate public deception into the future," Connolly and Harvard colleague, Hillel Alpert, write.

By Peter Sergo, medwireNews Reporter