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The filtered truth.

With low tar cigarettes, rather than stonewall the health issue, tobacco companies exploit it. Here's how

The Surgeon's General's office declared war on smoking in 1966 and 29 years into the fight, it's hard to tell who's winning. Yes, the percent of adult Americans who smoke has dwindled from 40 percent in 1964 to 25 percent in 1992. But since the U.S. population has increased over that period, the total number of cigarettes annually sold has dipped only slightly. The first 25 years of the anti-smoking campaign avoided or postponed 789,000 deaths. But smoking claimed about half that many lives in 1985 alone. Anti-smoking forces point out that recent morbidity figures reflect the bad habits of older smokers 20 years ago. But three thousand teenagers take up smoking each day.

Of course, if the Surgeons General and their allies have managed anything close to a draw in this battle, they all deserve medals. This isn't what you'd call a fair fight. The tobacco industry spends upwards of $4 billion per year on advertising and promotion, pushing a product more additive than either heroin or cocaine. And thanks to the industry's friends in Congress, using government to protect smokers has been extremely difficult. By legislative fiat, cigarettes were exclude d from the Consumer Product Safety Act and the Fair Labeling and Packaging Act. Tobacco is also exempted from the Toxic Substances Act, even though a cigarette has more benzine in it than what was thought to be in Perrier, and more cyanide in it than was found in those tainted Chilean grapes. The Food and Drug Administration won't get involved because it decided about 90 years ago that tobacco isn't a drug and hasn't changed its mind since. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is only interested in whether cigarette makers have paid taxes. The courts haven't been helpful because juries tend to believe that warning labels shield the industry from liability, which is why the companies were proponents of the pack warning when it was first introduced. In sum, the most destructive of commonly bought consumer products is also the most insulated and hardest to curb.

Outspent and outmaneuvered, the health advocates' strategy has been simple and effective: spread the word about the hazards of smoking. Today, 80 percent of smokers say they want to quit. That may sound like a period that makes cigarette executives dyspeptic - as it turns out, it's a factoid that makes them money. Back in the sixties, right around the time that the public mind began connecting cigarettes to cancer, the tobacco industry started marketing low tar, low nicotine cigarettes to meet consumer demands for "safer" smoke (tar is what gives cigarettes flavor and causes disease; nicotine is what keeps smokers addicted). Since then, low yield cigarettes have steadily captured more and more of the market. In 1967, low tar cigarettes - 15 mg or less - had two percent of the market; today they have just under 60 percent.

You'd think, and the cigarette companies would have you believe, that this stampede to low tar would result in a net health gain for all concerned. In fact, the surge in low tar sales marks the triumph of one of Tobacco's most brazen and successful cons - a con which has helped make cigarettes the nation's leading cause of preventable deaths. While polls show that millions of adults now believe that low tar means safer, a welter of scientific evidence says just the opposite: Any possible benefits to trading in that heavy-duty Camel for something lighter are substantially, often entirely, offset by changes in the way people smoke. "What you smoke," says Jeffrey Harris, a physician and health economist at MIT, "is not nearly as important as how you smoke." Since people tend to make up for reductions in tar and nicotine by inhaling harder, many scientists, and the Surgeon General's office, believe low yield cigarettes are actually a greater hazard to smokers' health.

All of which has made marketing low tar cigarettes a challenge worthy of the tobacco companies' renowned cunning. Not only have they convinced people that an unsafe product is safe, but they have devised some nifty ways to make sure that customers are ingesting lots more tar and nicotine than they realize - thus making it harder for smokers to quit. The two most important techniques behind it all are a packaging trick to fool buyers, and all little shady science to fool the government.

Pack rats

Keeping addiction levels high was easy back when no one thought cigarettes were harmful and the average cigarette yielded nearly three times the tar of today's offerings. But when health concerns grew, the industry could either provide smokers with lower tar and nicotine alternatives or risk losing their business altogether. So the industry set up "brand families" - choices under the same level with successively lower tar and nicotine ratings. Typically, companies now offer three rungs down the ladder, ranging from regular tar (16 to 12 mg), to low (12 to 6 mg), to ultra low (under 6 mg).

For smokers trying to kick the habit "switching down" - hop-scotching to progressively lower ratings of tar and nicotine - is the most painless way to quit. This, of course, is how nicotine patches work, so at first glance these brand families are enough to make you misty-eyed about cigarette executives setting aside foolish self-interest and helping smokers to toss their ashtrays forever. But look a little closer and you'll see that as smokers are trying to switch down, the tobacco companies are doing everything they can to fill smokers with as much tar and nicotine as possible.

Brand families are usually large and bewildering; there are variations of size (85s, 100s, kings, regulars) filter (mentholated, regular, light, ultra light), and pack (hard, soft). There are 16 different types of Marlboros, for instance, and 17 different kinds of Merits. Sound like it might get confusing? It's supposed to. Smokers who aren't paying attention get fooled and, more importantly, get more nicotine. The Virginia Slims 100 mentholated slim light, for example, is rated at 8 mg of tar and .6 mg of nicotine. The Virginia Slims 120 mentholated slim light is rated at 13 tar and 1.1 nicotine. Why so much more tar and nicotine for 20 milligrams more cigarette?

"Because the 120 is longer," says Karen Daragan, a spokeperson for Phillip Morris.

Daragan didn't know why the company crammed that extra 20 percent of cigarette with about 70 percent more tar and nicotine. But look at some other packaging high jinks and you can take your own guess. Carlton 100s in the hardpack are rated at 1 mg of tar and .1 mg of nicotine. But Carlton 100s in the softpack - same cigarette, different pack - are rated at 2 mg and .2 mg of tar. NOW kings in the hardpack are less than .5 mg of tar and less than .5 mg of nicotine; NOW kings in the softpack are 1 mg of tar and .1 mg of nicotine. That's like Budweiser doubling the alcohol for the can version of a beer they also make in a bottle.

Why twice the tar and nicotine for what you'd drink was an identical cigarette?

"Smokers may have told us that they wanted that," ventures Dee Dee Whitt, spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds. "There are probably different blends in the two packs. It's no big deal."

Roger Baker, a spokesperson for American Brands, the makers of Carlton, offers a historical explanation. "The Carlton 100s in the softpack came out first, in September 1977, and the hardpack came out in December of 1980," he says.

Good to know, but not exactly what you'd call a reason. Baker also put forth the size argument: "The Carlton 100 in the softpact is fractionally larger," he says.

He's right. Softpack cigarettes are three to five millimeters longer, which means that for five percent more cigarette, you get 100 percent more tar and nicotine. It also means that by switching from hard- to softpack you effectively double the level of your nicotine addiction.

It's the same story for tens of hard- and softpack brands. Frederick Gahagan, a former researcher for the cigarette companies in the seventies and eighties, says that the hard pack switheroo is part of marketing strategy as timeles as used car sales. "They advertise the heck out of the hardpack, and they they put the softpack in heavy distribution," says Gahagan, whose New York-based survey company performed research projects for Brown & Williamson and R.J. Reynolds. "The customer comes in and asks for the hardpack. The guy behind the counter says |We're out of it, but I've got the softpack.' So the smoker switches up without even knowing it." Gahagan says that marketers at both R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson told him they use this sales tactic.

Does it work? American Brands, the only company which would share information about sales by pack, reports that Carlton's softpack market share is 25 percent larger than the hardpack's (.3 to .25 percent, respectively). Given that 1 percent of the cigarette market is worth $80 million in profits, the difference means the softpack outnets the hard to the tune of $4 million each year.

Over draft

Even before smokers have the chance to unwittingly double their level of addiction, cigarette makers have ensured that their product is more addictive than advertised. The FTC publishes an annual report of the tar and nicotine levels of every cigarette on the market. (The tests themselves, by the way, are conducted by the Tobacco Institute, the lobbying arm of the cigarette companies). Trouble is, these official ratings are derived from a machine test which is hopelessly outdated and consistently gives "safer" cigarettes a lower tar and nicotine rating than what the cigarettes actually deliver.

The test is easy to fool because it is concluded by a machine. A cigarette is held by a tube, then a syringe is attached to its butt end which then extracts one draw of smoke every minute and passes the smoke through a pad. The pad is then weighed and studied. This is a lousy approximation of human smoking, especially in the low and ultra low tar category. The filters on these cigarettes have vents which pull air into the filter as a smoker inhales, diluting the tar and nicotine. The air vents are usually 11 to 13 millimeters from the end of the cigarette, but the machine's "lips" only cover the first 10 millimeters. When the machine smokes, the vents work, but when people smoke they cover the holes with their fingers or lips. This can up the tar rating by as much as 500 percent. (The machine tester was designed in the fifties before anyone thought of putting air vent on cigarettes. Also, the machine's one-draw-per-minute pace is far from the norm. It was established back when cigarettes averaged 37 mg of tar, a strength which would send today's smokers into la-la land. Because of filters, the average puff rate is now one every 34 seconds. The upshot is that low and ultra low tar cigarettes are underrated relative to regular cigarettes, and, in absolute terms, they are more additive and more dangerous than their ratings imply.

Aside from anti-smoking advocates, about the only cries of foul play heard about machine-testing chicanery, ironically enough, have been from the cigarette companies themselves. Back in 1983, launching a new brand called Barclay, Brown & Williamson created a filter which had air vents right at the tip, where the mouth meets the cigarette. Thanks to those vents, the FTC test awarded Barclay with a 1 mg tar and .1 mg nicotine rating, putting it squarely in the ultra low category. But when people smoked the cigarettes, within three or four puffs they crushed the air vents with their lips or fingers. Within a minute or two of lighting up, the actual tar rating was somewhere between 3 and 7 mg.

Other cigarette makers recognize that ultra low tar smokers who happened onto a Barclay would think they had found a cigarette that gave them superior taste, and maybe even a neat buzz, with what appeared to be an extremely low tar rating. Brown & Williamson stood to swipe hordes of ultra low tar smokers from other brands. A group of cigarette companies howled to the FTC, which then successfully sued Brown & Williamson, forcing it to stop advertising Barclay with its false ratings. The unwritten rule of the industry is that cheating the machine is all right as long all the players are cheating at roughly the same rate.

Heavy breathing

Even if low tar smokers scrupulously avoid the bait and switch, and even if the FTC roused itself to update machine testing, low tar enthusiasts face a far larger problem: their cigarettes. What has been lost amid the industry's cheering about lower ratings is the more important issue of smoking technique. "People vary tremendously in their style of smoking," says MIT health expert Jeffrey Harris. "Scientists now study how deeply you inhale, how much pressure you put on the cigarette, whether you hold the smoke in the back of your throat, and if so, for how long."

A spate of scientific findings over the last 13 years suggest that the answers to these questions are more relevant to the state of your lungs than the kind of cigarette you smoke. Typical was a study made public in August by the American Lung Association which analyzed saliva and breath samples of 300 smokers and found that carbon dioxide levels were "barely distinguishable" between smokers of low yield cigarettes and those smoking regulars. In 1980, the British Medical Journal found that "Despite large differences in nicotine yield, there was no relation between blood concentration and the type of cigarette smoked."

The problem is what epidemiologists call "compensation," the tendency to make up for reductions in tar and nicotine with stronger inhalations. Rather than settling comfortably into their reduced levels of tar and nicotine, most low tar smokers draw on their cigarettes harder - a lot harder. In 1982, the medical journal Thorax published a study of 1,316 men smoking their usual brands and found that "smokers of ventilated filter cigarettes inhaled 82 percent more than smokers of plain cigarettes." At that rate, possible health advantages are either drastically reduced or totally eliminated.

Or worse. By pulling harder into their lungs using low tar cigarettes, smokers can actually raise their risk of disease. "The reality is that disease is not caused by the number of cigarettes you light but by inhalation, deposition and retention of cigarette smoke in the lungs," says Dr. David Burns, a professor at University of California at San Diego's School of Medicine. "If you inhale more deeply into the lung, a larger fraction of tar is deposited there." The 1989 Surgeon General's report agreed, finding that "Compensatory smoking behavior in response to lower nicotine intake might actually increase the intake of tobacco smoke toxins in some individuals."

Tar and pleasure

None of this is news to cigarette makers, although for years they have said only that they make low tar cigarettes because consumers like them. (Stating that low tar is safer would imply that some cigarettes are less safe or unsafe, something no cigarette maker would concede.) But Big Tobacco spends millions annually on market research, and it knows that people smoke low tar cigarettes because they perceive them as healthier. This became clear in a very public way in 1988 when a group of cigarette companies sues and the Canadian government over its Tobacco Products Control Act, a law severely restricting cigarette advertising. In the course of the trial, Imperial Tobacco, which is owned by British American Tobacco Company (the same folks who own Brown & Williamson), was forced to produce some internal research documents which laid bare the myth that low tar cigarettes are just a way to give the people what they want. they

Commenting on cigarettes with less than 6 mg of tar, one report said that "We have evidence of virtually no quitting among smokers of those brands, and there are indications that the advent of ultra low cigarettes has actually retained some potential quitters in the cigarette market by offering them a viable alternative." Imperial also was well aware that smokers have to pull harder to derive any pleasure from their low tar cigarettes. One focus group study called "Project Eli" quoted one smoker saying "You have to really haul on it just to get anything. It's just like sucking air." Another said, "Every puff is an instant hernia." Project Eli found one smoker who sealed up cigarette vents with scotch tape.

The Imperial Tobacco documents were important to the Canadian government's case because if cigarette makers-intend to sell low tar cigarettes as safer, then the companies are making a health claim about the product, which means it can be far more stringently regulated. The court eventually found against the Canadian tobacco companies in 1991, letting stand some of the toughest advertising cigarette restrictions in the world.

You'd expect that the example up north might have some relevance here because the FDA is supposed to regulate any product intended to mitigate a disease or addiction. The key concept here is intent, which our Supreme Court has said can be discerned through advertising. Unfortunately for health advocates, the FDA has so far not found any health claims in low tar ads, and in 1988 simply didn't rule on a petition from the Coalition on Smoking. OR Health urging the agency to classify all low yield cigarettes as drugs. Today, the FDA is in the odd position of forcing makers of the nicotine patch, which is part of the solution, to jump through countless regulatory hoops, even though low tar cigarettes, which are part of the problem, haven't jumped through any.

"Lower tar cigarettes are in response to consumer demand," says Bill Wordham of the Tobacco Institute, delivering the party line. "We make no health claims whatsoever."

Well, sort of. One advantage magazine ad read, "If you smoke and are concerned about your health, switch to Vantage." A Carlton ad pleaded, "If you smoke, please try Carltons." But Wordham is right that most low tar ads just prattle about delivering great taste with less tar. Under the circumstances, claiming anything more is crazy. And unnecessary, since people are already ready convicted that lower tar and nicotine means safer. One survey conducted by Gallup this year found that 48.6 percent of adults, smokers and non-smokers, think low yield means safer.

Numbers like these make the issue of intent seem spectacularly beside the point. That the smoking public has been sold the low tar bill of goods sounds like reason enough to spur the FDA into action. Cigarette makers shouldn't be allowed to cash in on the very health fears that they and their product have created, especially since what they offer as a safe haven for worried smokers is so demonstrably dangerous.
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Title Annotation:low tar cigarettes
Author:Segal, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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