In an industry where even an R.J. Reynolds flack has to concede that “there is no safe cigarette,” it’s no surprise that tobacco companies try to play all the angles to hang on to their customers.
Now they’re scrambling to stave off the effect of new federal regulations that take aim at one of the oldest and most familiar marketing practices designed to keep smokers from quitting.
As of last week, the sale of cigarettes manufactured under healthy-sounding names like light, mild, and low-tar will be banned by new U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules.
Just as with the introduction of filters years ago, tobacco companies used these labels to create the false impression that such brands were less harmful. Surveys of smokers have found that more than half mistakenly believe that regular cigarettes are more deadly than the light varieties.
But while this form of deceptive labeling is being banned, tobacco companies are busy substituting color-coded packaging meant to alert smokers that their favorite light or mild cigarette is still on the shelves. Industry officials say the packaging merely alerts smokers to a particular “smoking experience,” and that they make no health claims.
To the extent that customers still consider these smokes somehow safer, though, they’ll be less likely to face up to the need to quit a deadly habit that kills more than 433,000 people annually.
The American Lung Association and U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., recently attacked the color-coding as what Waxman called “a transparent attempt by the tobacco industry to evade the law and mislead consumers.”
For the FDA, then, the fight against deceptive labeling could become a game of Whac-A-Mole. The agency, which one year ago was given oversight of tobacco, clearly needs to crack down on this color-coding meant to lull smokers into thinking they’re doing themselves less harm.
Another important focus for the agency will be its monitoring of new rules that restrict tobacco marketing efforts aimed at children and teenagers, which also take effect next week.
One safe assumption for FDA regulators is that tobacco industry officials will try to be one step ahead of them at almost every turn.
They have to keep up.