Policy

New Ban on Light Cigarettes Unlikely to Stop People from Buying and Smoking Light Cigarettes

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Photograph courtesy like a brick/flikr. cc-by-nc

FDA regulations imposing tough new restrictions on the tobacco industry came into force today. Among the measures are new constraints on retailers, stringent controls on how companies can market their products, and limitations on what words that can be used in brand names. The FDA was given the authority to regulate tobacco under last year's Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which it has used to bully both retailers and producers.

Among the more draconian of the new rules is a prohibition on using terms such as "light," "mild," or "low" in brand names. These types of laws are generally justified by statistics showing that many smokers believe light cigarettes are better for their health. Yet there appears to be little to no evidence that prohibiting the use of the terms has any effect on this perception. A lot of people believe withdrawal is a valid form of birth control, but that doesn't mean that banning the practice will change anything.

Quite the contrary. A 2008 study published in the journal Tobacco Control looked at a similar piece of legislation in the United Kingdom. It found that misconceptions about the health benefits of light cigarettes initially declined, but eventually rebounded. The net change in perceptions after four years was no greater in the U.K. than it was in the U.S. The study concluded that, "bans on such terms are neither sufficient to eliminate false beliefs, nor do they produce greater effects than non-regulatory measures."

In Canada, a similar law has done little more than create confusion among consumers. Canadian cigarettes are currently coded by color and different manufacturers use different color schemes—in the U.S. Marlboro Lights will become Marlboro Gold and Camel Lights will be renamed Camel Blue. The effect is that it is difficult to switch between brands of light cigarettes because customers don't know what to ask for. People often stick to using the term "light," and retailers usually know what they're talking about. In other words, the ban has not stopped the use of the term, but it has caused confusion among consumers and imposed additional costs on producers.

Unlike in the '80s when one could generally walk into a Chinese restaurant and pick up a pack of Marlboros and an order of sweet and sour pork, vending machines in facilities that permit minors are now completely illegal. On the bright side, however, it will remain legal to walk into a strip club to get a pack of Players and a lap dance.

More on the Tobacco Control Act from Reason's Jacob Sullum here and here, who wrote about the new developments earlier today here.