Vermont Attorney General Sues Reynolds American Inc. for False and Misleading Cigarette Marketing Claims

Claiming that Reynolds American Inc. violated state consumer-protection laws prohibiting unfair and deceptive advertising, the Vermont Attorney General has sued the tobacco giant regarding its marketing campaign for Eclipse brand cigarettes.

The lawsuit is the result of a multi-state investigation into whether enough scientific evidence exists to support the claim that Eclipse is safer than regular cigarettes. Specifically, Reynolds American claims that Eclipse (introduced in 2003) “may present less risk of cancer, chronic bronchitis, and possibly emphysema.”

The claim is also made that eclipse is the “nest best choice” after quitting for health-conscious smokers because it “responds to concerns about certain smoking related-related illnesses…including cancer.”

The Attorney General’s position is that the scientific evidence does not support these claims of a “less harmful” cigarette and, thus, the marketing campaign is in violation of the terms of the 1998 settlement wherein the tobacco industry was prohibited from misrepresenting facts about the health risks associated with tobacco use.

Reynolds American has taken the position that there is “adequate scientific evidence to defend the claims we make on Eclipse.” The company cites chemical testing and animal studies to support its position. Most experts, however, remain unconvinced that any of the “gimmicks” being used to market “less harmful” or “healthier” cigarettes are supported by any scientific proof at all.

In fact, it appears that just the opposite may be true as the debate over these reduced-harm cigarettes grows.

As reported only this week, a new study conducted at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, and published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine has found a significant percentage of smokers mistakenly believe cigarettes marketed as “less harmful” are safer than regular cigarettes.

While these researchers and others before them have found no credible evidence that any cigarette advertised as “less harmful” is any safer than traditional brands, too few smokers seem to know that.

Of the 2,000 adult smokers surveyed, only 39% had heard of these “less harmful” cigarettes and even fewer (27%) could actually name a brand. Finally, 25% actually believed they were not as dangerous as regular cigarettes. Those over 55 were more likely to have heard of these products.

Whether the claim involved is the older marketing ploy of reduced toxin exposure, “light” (or “ultra-light) or “low tar” or the newer approach of “less harmful,” herbal, or “smoke-free,” the same percentage of those surveyed believed there to be less danger involved.

Over 50% of those surveyed were already smoking “light” or “ultra-light” brands.

The researchers stated that because smokers are “confused” by advertising claims, those companies marketing any cigarette in this questionable category “should be required to demonstrate convincingly that smokers will not be confused or misled by the marketing claims.”

The results of this survey, however, should not surprise anyone familiar with the history of cigarette advertising since the tobacco industry has always led the public to believe that smoking “light” or “low tar” versions of cigarettes is less harmful because health risks are minimized.

Studies have indicated that this is not really the case at all. There are a number of factors which show that the information provided by the tobacco industry is indeed misleading.

•  A report published by the National Cancer Institute found that people who switched to low-tar cigarettes actually smoked more in order to get the same total amount of nicotine. For the most part, the ratio between tar and nicotine remains the same in all cigarettes and, therefore, the risk for the smoker exposing his or her lungs to the carcinogenic ingredients remains the same. The same report found that smokers of these “mild” brands inhale eight times more nicotine than the amount listed on the packet. “The [report] clearly demonstrates that people who switch to ‘low-tar’ or ‘light’ cigarettes…are likely to inhale the same amount of cancer-causing toxins,” says Scott Leischow, Ph.D., Chief of the NCI Tobacco Control Research Branch. “Scientific research does not show that changes in cigarette design and manufacturing over the last 50 years have benefited public health.”

• According to an analysis in Tobacco Control, a British Medical Association publication, many tobacco companies recognized that low tar products were as dangerous as regular cigarettes, yet continued to market them as “healthier” alternatives. The industry believed that, with all the evidence linking tobacco with lung cancer, smokers would be encouraged to quit and thus they devised “low tar” and “light” products in order to reassure them that smoking was not as bad as they originally thought.

• Cigarettes that are branded as “hi-fi” or “high filtration” imply that they are somehow able to reduce health risks associated with smoking. This filtering ploy has been described in industry documents as “an effective advertising gimmick” which was merely cosmetic, offering “the image of health reassurance.”

•  While some test results related to “low tar/light” cigarettes seemed to illustrate they are a healthier alternative to full-flavor cigarettes, the test results themselves are subject to question. The tobacco industry designed cigarettes specifically so that the Federal Trade Commission tests, which have used smoking machines since the 1960s to determine the levels of smoke toxicity, would find that these “light” and “low-tar” cigarettes yield less tar when smoked. In actuality, they still deliver full doses of tar and nicotine to actual smokers.

• Although low-tar cigarettes are frequently made with porous paper and more loosely packed tobacco in an effort to reduce tar intake, research has shown that smokers will still receive the maximum levels of tar because they will usually take more (and deeper) puffs or smoke more total cigarettes per day. Some of these cigarettes also have small holes in the filters designed to dilute the tar and nicotine with air. Reports show, however, that many people will consciously or unconsciously cover these holes with their mouths while smoking thus receiving the same amounts of tar and nicotine as in regular cigarettes.

• In a study conducted in 2002 by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, less than 10% of smokers nationwide knew that one light cigarette could deliver the same amount of tar as one regular cigarette.

•  William Farone, a former employee of Phillip Morris, the nation’s largest cigarette manufacturer, has testified that the company increased the tar in one “low-tar” brand, Cambridge Lights, from 0 to 12 mg. over a seven-year period. The company never told consumers that the tar content had gradually been increased. Smokers of that brand as well as smokers who bought Marlboro Lights subsequently sued Phillip Morris on the grounds that the label “lights” was deceptive regarding tar and nicotine levels. (The lawsuit was for the refund of money they paid for the cigarettes as opposed to one for personal injuries). A spokesman for Phillip Morris said that the company did not want the terms “light” and “low-tar” banned from cigarette packs but would support greater regulation of their use.

Clearly, a significant number of smokers are being taken in by the tobacco industry’s unsubstantiated and misleading advertising campaigns with respect to various “less harmful” cigarettes. Once that happens, people will be less likely to attempt to quit. They may even be encouraged to take up smoking again after successfully quitting. It would seem that the multi-state governmental investigation and the Vermont Attorney General agree. 

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