Durbin, Lautenberg Warn Tobacco Companies Not to Engage in Misleading Cigarette Advertising

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) today urged four major tobacco companies not to engage in any effort to mislead customers to believe they are buying safer cigarettes.  Last year, Congress passed landmark legislation that banned using descriptors in cigarette labeling – such as “light,” “mild,” or “low-tar” – which insinuate or imply that certain products are healthier or lower risk than regular cigarettes. Research has definitively shown that although smoke from “light” cigarettes may feel smoother or lighter on the throat and chest, in fact these cigarettes are not less harmful than regular cigarettes.

Despite the ban on these terms, recent news reports have suggested that cigarette companies are planning to replace the use of these words with creative packaging and inserts that clearly circumvent the intent of this law.

“Less than a year ago, Congress decided that in order to improve public health we had to put a stop to the deceptive marketing techniques that were used to peddle one of the most deadly products in the world,” said Durbin.  “It didn’t take long for the tobacco companies to find a new way to market their product.  Today, Senator Lautenberg and I are warning tobacco companies not to mislead consumers about the danger of cigarettes with creative and misleading advertising.”

"The new law sends 'Light' and 'Low Tar' cigarettes into the trash bin of history, but the tobacco companies are trying to continue using smoke and mirrors to market 'healthier' cigarettes," said Lautenberg, a long time advocate for honest cigarette labeling.  "It was exposed years ago that for many people, smoking so-called 'Light' cigarettes was even more dangerous for them than regular cigarettes.  Big Tobacco wants to prolong the myth of 'safer' cigarettes and continue deceiving smokers, but they do so at their own legal peril.  Senator Durbin and I are working to ensure smokers understand the major health risks posed by all cigarettes, and prevent a future generation of smokers from getting hooked in the first place."  

Durbin and Lautenberg sent letters to the following companies: Altria (parent company of Philip Morris USA), Reynolds American (division of R.J. Reynolds), Lorillard Tobacco Company and Liggett Group.

Text of letter appears below:

June 17, 2010

Dear Tobacco Company:

We write to urge you to comply fully with the requirements and intent of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (Public Law 111-31) by using truthful cigarette packaging and advertisements.  Specifically, we are concerned by news reports indicating that cigarette companies intend to use colors and other methods to circumvent the law’s ban on labeling cigarettes as “light” and “mild” and mislead customers to believe they are buying safer products.

When Congress passed this landmark legislation last June, we included a ban on using descriptors such as “light,” “mild,” or “low” in cigarette labeling or advertising beginning on June 22, 2010, one year after the date of enactment of the law.  This prohibition was put in place to protect public health and prevent consumers from being misled to erroneously believe that products labeled with these terms are less harmful than “regular” or “full-flavor” cigarettes.

Research has definitively shown that although smoke from “light” cigarettes may feel smoother or lighter on the throat and chest, in fact these cigarettes are not less harmful than regular cigarettes.  The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has concluded that light cigarettes provide no benefit to smokers’ health, as people who switch to light cigarettes from regular cigarettes are likely to inhale the same amount of hazardous chemicals and remain at high risk for developing smoking-related cancers and other diseases.

NCI researchers have also found that the strategies used by the tobacco industry to advertise and promote light cigarettes are intended to reassure smokers, to discourage them from quitting, and to lead consumers to perceive filtered and light cigarettes as safer alternatives to regular cigarettes.  However, there is no evidence that switching to light or ultra-light cigarettes actually helps smokers quit.

The lower tar and nicotine content figures used to advertise light and ultralight cigarettes are also misleading.  These numbers come from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cigarette testing method, which uses machines to “smoke” every brand of cigarettes exactly the same way.  As brought to light by a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in 2007, the smoking machines do not really tell how much tar and nicotine a particular smoker may inhale because people do not smoke cigarettes the same way the machines do.  In fact, smokers may inhale more deeply; take larger, more rapid or more frequent puffs; or smoke a few extra cigarettes each day to consume enough nicotine to satisfy their craving.  This practice of “compensating” means that smokers using these products inhale more tar, nicotine, and other harmful chemicals than the results of smoking machines suggest.

Given the compelling evidence that light cigarettes are no safer than ordinary cigarettes, we included a ban on the use of these descriptor terms in cigarette labeling and advertising in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in order to improve public health and reduce false perceptions.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidance this month to aid industry in understanding the prohibition on the use of these terms.  We are aware that to comply with this ban, you will be required to change the packaging of your cigarettes.

However, we are concerned by recent news reports suggesting that cigarette companies are planning to replace the use of words such as “light” and “mild” with colors designed to evoke the terms used previously.  Additionally, we understand that cigarette makers have included inserts in packs and displays at retail locations telling customers to “In the Future, Ask For Marlboro Silver Pack 100’s or Camel Blues.”  Such packaging and inserts clearly circumvent the intent of the law by insinuating or implying that certain products are healthier or lower risk or that they are a continuation of a product that allegedly carried less risk in the past.

The use of color shapes perceptions of risks on all products.  For example, many food products such as mayonnaise and soda use lighter colors on their packaging to distinguish between diet, light and regular products.  Additionally, research on tobacco products specifically shows that smokers and nonsmokers perceive white and light colors on packages as an indication that a product is healthier.

When we passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, our unambiguous intention was to make cigarette labeling as transparent as possible.  We urge you to be honest and forthright with your consumers after the new labeling requirements take effect.  Consumers deserve to know the truth about the safety of your products, and attempts to mislead consumers into believing that certain products are safer than others will not be tolerated.  We will be watching how you handle this transition and will not be silent if you perpetuate the myths about “light” cigarettes using new methods.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Richard J. Durbin
United States Senator
Frank R. Lautenberg
United States Senator