Colorful Way Tobacco Industry May Be Skirting Labeling Rules

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Words like “light” and “mild” can’t be used on cigarette packages, but colors can.

In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the tobacco industry from using descriptors like “light,” “low” or  “mild” to label or advertise cigarettes, noting that “Congress found that many smokers mistakenly believe that cigarettes marketed with these descriptors cause fewer health problems than other cigarettes, and that those mistaken beliefs can reduce the motivation to quit smoking.” But researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) say that smokers can still easily identify their pack of choice based on a color-coding system the tobacco industry substituted for the word descriptors on cigarette packs after the ban.

“If you read the law, it would be hard to say you didn’t break it,” says study co-author Gregory Connolly of the new packaging of cigarettes. Connolly, a professor of the Practice of Public Health at HSPH and director for the Center for Global Tobacco Control and his colleagues published their findings online in journal Tobacco Control and will present their results at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.

In a 2006, federal court ruling, the tobacco industry was prohibited from using descriptions to promote “light” cigarettes as healthier. The court found that many smokers died because they switched to lights, under the impression it was better for their health based on industry claims that holes allowed more air to mix with the smoke, diluting the concentration of potentially harmful compounds that smokers inhaled. That ruling was bolstered by the 2009 passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gave the FDA control over tobacco products.

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To document whether the ban on using descriptors was leading to the changes Congress and the FDA intended, the HSPH researchers looked at manufacturer research manuals and annual reports from tobacco company Philip Morris submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, as well as a nationally representative public opinion survey and market-wide cigarette sales data.

They found that cigarette manufacturers removed the banned descriptors from their packaging and simultaneously substituted color names to correspond with the former brands. For example, Marlboro Light brands became Marlboro Gold, Marlboro Mild became Marlboro Blue and Marlboro Ultra-Light became Marlboro Silver.

According to the study:

The numbers of Marlboro, Camel and Newport sub-brands with one of the color descriptors Blue, Gold or Silver in the name increased over 10-fold from three in 2009 to 33 in 2010 as well as 2011, while the number of sub-brands with Lights descriptors dropped from 35 to zero in 2011 following the ban. These Lights sub-brands, which were subsequently renamed with color descriptors, represented 31.8% of the U.S. cigarette market in 2009.

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Even more concerning was the consumer response to the package changes. The researchers reported that one year after the ban, 88% to 91% of smokers said it was ‘somewhat easy’ or ‘very easy’ to identify their previous brand of cigarettes based on the new color-based names. Sixty-eight percent of smokers could correctly name the package color associated with their usual brand, and sales for Lights remained unchanged.

The new names also flout the law, says Connolly, which requires any such new products be approved by the FDA before reaching the market. In fact, the study also describes a Philip Morris brochure, intended for retailers, that stated: “Some cigarette and smokeless packaging is changing, but the product remains the same. For trade use only: not to be shown nor distributed to customers.”

“This study demonstrates the continued attempts of the industry to avoid reasonable regulation of tobacco products. Scrutiny is needed by the FDA and courts to ensure that tobacco manufacturers comply with the law and that their products no longer convey false impressions of reduced risk,” said study co-author Hillel Alpert, a research scientist in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH in a statement.

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Connolly says the FDA needs to put more pressure on the tobacco industry to ensure that the law giving FDA authority to regulate tobacco starts to serve its purpose. Just last month, long-time tobacco industry critic Mitch Zeller was appointed as the new head of the agency’s Center for Tobacco Products, which many hope will lead to stronger federal commitment to regulation of the industry.

“This is now an area where there is good clarity for action,” says Connolly.