Tobacco Industry Dodging Product Labeling Rules In Colorful Ways

tobacco advertising research

Before the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulation inhibited tobacco manufacturers in the US from using misleading terminology on their packaging and advertising, the industry branded cigarette packs with words like light, ultra-light, low, and mild.

These descriptive terms deceived smokers into erroneously assuming the products were less dangerous or imposed less negative health effects than regular cigarettes. Light and low-tar cigarettes claimed to deliver less tar and nicotine than regular cigarettes.

The strict label rule was predicated on the August 2006 federal court ruling against the tobacco industry’s surreptitious marketing practices, which suggested switching to a lighter cigarette was somehow healthier.

Federal District Judge Gladys Kessler found they had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by defrauding the public regarding the dangers of smoking.

The ruling was reinforced by the 2009 enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gave the FDA regulating authority over tobacco products.

The concept of smoking a seemingly healthier version of a cigarette lessened the likelihood of smokers being motivated to quit the addictive habit.

The National Cancer Institute found that smokers who use light cigarettes did not reduce their risk for developing smoking related cancers and other diseases.

Additionally, the tobacco industry has been accused of intentionally increasing the amount of nicotine, the addictive element, in their products — including their light and mild cigarettes. Nicotine levels in cigarettes from all major manufacturers gradually increased 11 percent from 1997 to 2005.

Other countries have since taken similar action in requiring less deceptive labeling on their tobacco products.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) have found, even without the words labeled light or mild on the cigarette packs, smokers can still easily identify their light-like variety of choice based on a color-coding system used by tobacco manufacturers.

In order to identify possible variations in tobacco purchase patterns post-ban, the HSPH analysts reviewed Philip Morris research and annual reports previously submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, a nationally public opinion survey, and market-wide cigarette sales data.

The study described how once the misrepresenting terminology had been removed color-coding was substituted to correspond with the former brand types.

For example, Marlboro products previously called Marlboro Light became Marlboro Gold, Marlboro Mild became Marlboro Blue, and Marlboro Ultra-Lights were repackaged as Marlboro Silver. The same was seen with products manufactured with Camel and Newport.


Researchers found nearly 90 percent of smoking consumers were easily able to identify their previously mislabeled brand of cigarettes solely on the color-based names, according to the public survey.

Study co-author Gregory Connolly, a professor of the Practice of Public Health at HSPH and director for the Center for Global Tobacco Control, pointed out a description specifically outlined in a Philip Morris brochure — not intended for distribution to customers but for retailers — which stated, “Some cigarette and smokeless packaging is changing, but the product remains the same.”

Co-author Hillel Alpert, a research scientist in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH, said in a statement, “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.”

The study was published online in the journal Tobacco Control. The results were also presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Nicotine and Tobacco research on March 14 in Boston, Massachusetts.

[Image via Shutterstock]