More Co-Conspirators in the Light Cigarette 'Fraud'

Last week, in a post about the "corrective statements" that the Justice Department says tobacco companies should be forced to issue, I noted that the Federal Trade Commission has long participated in one of the "frauds" the DOJ condemns cigarette makers for perpetrating. By approving a method of measuring the tar and nicotine yields of cigarettes and pressuring the tobacco companies to publicize those numbers, it encouraged the public to believe that "light" cigarettes (a term that is now banned) were safer than full-strength smokes. The problem, which the government has understood for decades, is that smokers (unlike the machines used to measure the official yields) tend to compensate for reduced nicotine yields by smoking more intensely (taking more puffs, inhaling more deeply, holding the smoke longer, etc.). Consequently it is not clear to what extent low-yield cigarettes provide a real health advantage. As Brad Rodu notes on his Tobacco Truth blog, it was not just the FTC that encouraged smokers to believe they could reduce their risks by switching to light cigarettes; widely publicized research from the American Cancer Society seemed to confirm as much in the 1970s. In 1979, for instance, ACS President LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. said the results of a lung-tissue study "suggest a way for smokers to reduce their lung cancer risk by switching to low tar-nicotine cigarettes if they find it impossible to quit entirely."

Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville, adds that "the public health impact" of the shift to light cigarettes that began in the 1960s "remains a highly debated topic even today." A careful reader will surmise as much from the National Cancer Institute's evasive summary of the evidence:

Are light cigarettes less hazardous than regular cigarettes?

No. Many smokers chose so-called low-tar, mild, light, or ultralight cigarettes because they thought these cigarettes would expose them to less tar and would be less harmful to their health than regular or full-flavor cigarettes. However, light cigarettes are no safer than regular cigarettes. Tar exposure from a light cigarette can be just as high as that from a regular cigarette if the smoker takes long, deep, or frequent puffs. The bottom line is that light cigarettes do not reduce the health risks of smoking.

The fact that "tar exposure from a light cigarette can be just as high as that from a regular cigarette," of course, does not mean that it always or even usually is. The studies of "compensatory behavior" by smokers generally find that they get more nicotine from light cigarettes than you'd expect based on the official rating but still not as much as they'd get from regular cigarettes. So it is still possible smokers are reducing their exposure to toxins and carcinogens, depending on the extent of their compensatory behavior and the nicotine-to-tar ratio. What this means in terms of health risk is not clear, but if consumers were misled, anti-smoking activists and the federal government were complicit in the deception.

On a related topic, Reason Contributing Editor David Henderson notes the late economist John Calfee's research on the FTC's suppression of health-based competition among cigarette manufacturers. Calfee argued that the FTC's censorship, based on its position that (as it said in 1950) "the smoking of not appreciably harmful," meant that smokers were less likely to be reminded of the potential health consequences of their habit.

Speaking of the federal government's role in fostering misconceptions about tobacco, Michael Siegel suggests some "corrective statements" that the FTC, the Food and Drug Administration, the Office of the Surgeon General, and the Department of Health and Human Services should issue.

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  • SIV||

    Light cigarettes did make it easier for novice tobacco users to become habituated.It's a lot easier to smoke a half pack of Marlboro lights than Pall Mall reds before developing a taste and tolerance of tobacco.

  • Zeb||

    That seems likely. But it also points to a flaw in the main argument for why light cigs are as bad as others. A lot of people start smoking on light cigarettes, and never smoke anything else. So there is nothing to compensate for which would make them take larger or more frequent puffs.

    But even that argument points to an obvious path that the FDA will never allow: make light cigarettes that have low tar and high nicotine.

  • Robert||

    35 years ago a medical school prof who smoked told our class what I'm sure most doctors who thought about this thought then, "What they should develop is a low tar, high nicotine cigaret." What happened?

    This whole business stinks. People are blaming the cigaret business, which has been one of the most responsive around to consumer preferences, for being responsive to consumers -- and secondarily to gov't. Essentially they're being blamed for facts of biology. It'd be like blaming the food business for the law of gravity -- for making people and animals heavy.

  • ||

    35 years ago a medical school prof who smoked told our class what I'm sure most doctors who thought about this thought then, "What they should develop is a low tar, high nicotine cigaret." What happened?

    They did it, and it's called an electronic cigarette, complete with no tar.

    Always nice to see Brad Rodu and Dr. Michael Siegel getting nods on Reaosn.

  • Brandon||

    Also, a few years ago I saw something about a test market in the Ukraine (or somewhere similarly situated; I have since forgotten) where Phillip Morris was selling cigarettes that were around 60mm in length but had the nicotine content of a full-sized cigarette. Don't know what ever came of that.

  • sarcasmic||

    This has to be one of the dumbest laws ever.

    Now people order them by color. Geez. I'm waiting for there to be a lawsuit for discriminating against the color blind.

    So freaking stupid.

    Now how is a light cigarette smoker to know which is the light variety for a different brand?

    Unbelievably stupid.

  • ||

    It is beyond stupid. Now when I ask for "American Spirit Lights", I have to say "the yellow ones". Except even I don't know what the other ones are. What are the orange ones? The blacks are periques; I know that at least.

    Thank you, Obama. You've institutionalized stupidity beyond anything I thought possible.

  • sarcasmic||

    I'm glad I quit so I don't have to deal with this nonsense.
    Actually that's not true. My wife still smokes and I occasionally buy her cigarettes.
    "Pall Mal blue please? Oh, you're out. How bout Marlboro 72s. The gold ones."
    Can't say "light"
    Sooooooooooooooooooo stupid.

  • Zeb||

    Is there some new rule that store clerks have to pretend that they don't know what you are talking about when you say "lights", or are store clerks just that stupid that they can't figure out what people are asking for when they ask for lights?

  • sarcasmic||

    or are store clerks just that stupid that they can't figure out what people are asking for when they ask for lights?

    Often times there is a reason people work as store clerks, and scoring high on aptitude tests is not one of them.

  • Robert||

    Employment is more arbitrary and path-dependent than you'd think.

  • sarcasmic||

    What part of "often times" did you miss?

  • Robert||

    What part of "more" did you?

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    Is there some new rule that store clerks have to pretend that they don't know what you are talking about

    Booze bottles have been metric for a long time but the liquor store dude still knows what I'm talking about when I ask for a "fifth".

    ... Hobbit

  • ||

    The blacks are periques; I know that at least.

    Seriously? I used to have some cigars with perique tobacco (which is a rare variety grown in Louisiana, I think, and traditionally a pipe tobacco). They rocked, and smelled incredibly good. Haven't seen them for years.

  • ||

    Yup. They're amazingly tasty and amazingly strong. Good stuff.

  • ola||

    pall mall blues - lights
    pall mall orange - ultra light
    marlboro reds - regular
    marlboro whites - light

  • ||

    What, is lucky strike no longer a brand? (gets all of his cigarette knowledge from WWII movies)

  • Robert||

    Can't call them "Lucky" any more, that's a misleading claim associated with the mining industry.

  • Robert||

    Guy's walking down the street, humming a jingle, then breaking into actual words you can hear if you get close enough, "Go happy, go lucky, go happy, go Lucky Strikes. Go happy..." Keeps singing it softly as he walks into a candy story, "...go lucky, go happy, go Lucky Strikes." Walks up to the counter, "Go happy, go lucky, go happy...gimme a pack of Camels."

  • ||

    No, Marlboro Gold are the old Marlboro Lights. Silver/white are ultralights. Bur I spose Gold on White isn't red, so close enough....

  • Gregory Smith||

    Ultra ligths taste like nothing. When I used to smoke my favorites were lights. Of course, nowadays they don't even have "light" in the packaging, you recognize them by colors.

    Aside that, I think is unconstitutional to force a company to spend money in advertising, specially if you ask them to advertise against their product.

    What if gyms had to advertise apologies to people who didn't have a good experience? It's ridiculous!


  • Joshua||

    The real crime here is that companies are not allowed to advertise e-cigs and snus, etc as safer alternatives to smoking.

  • rather||

  • ||

    Is a co-conspirator anything like a co-teammate or a co-spouse or a co-member?


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