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 cigarettes…is 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.