'Light' labels in cigarettes meaningless, experts say

May 02, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Smokers of cigarettes labeled low in tar and nicotine may be getting more of those substances than they think, Federal Trade Commission officials and experts in smoking now agree. And they attribute the problem to testing that has not kept up with the changes in cigarette design over the last 20 years.

Since 1971, when the results of the tests were first printed in cigarette advertising and on packaging, cigarettes labeled low in tar and nicotine have taken over the market, now accounting for 60 percent of the cigarettes sold in this country.

National polls conducted by the Gallup organization have found that smokers believe that the cigarettes labeled "light" are less hazardous and will give them less tar and nicotine.

But evidence has accumulated that the measurements, which are carried out by tobacco company laboratories under the supervision of the FTC, bear little or no relation to how much nicotine and tar smokers actually get from smoking.

"The commission has been aware for a while that the test has problems regarding the actual intake that consumers will get," Judith D. Wilkenfeld, assistant director in the FTC's Division of Advertising Practices, said in a telephone interview.

"We know that consumers do not smoke in exactly the same manner as the machine" used in the testing, she said. "So the tests will not predict the actual human consumption."

She said the FTC was actively looking at alternatives to the tar and nicotine tests, and she added that the pressure to make a decision has increased lately.

The FTC cigarette tests are carried out by machines that hold the cigarettes and draw air through them in 2-second puffs, repeating the puffs once every minute until the cigarette is burned down to the filter.

But cigarettes now include several features that make the machine tests meaningless, according to Dr. Jack E. Henningfield, chief of clinical pharmacology research at the National Institutes on Drug Abuse.

For example, a majority of cigarettes now have tiny, nearly invisible holes in their filter paper, or in the cigarette paper near the filter.

When the smoking machine draws on a cigarette, a large amount xTC of air is drawn in, and this dilutes the smoke getting to the measuring device, making today's cigarettes appear to contain less tar and nicotine.

But smokers do not handle the cigarettes the same way the machine does. They find the diluted smoke milder, and to make up for the "lighter" taste, or less satisfying amount of nicotine, they puff more or draw deeper, pulling in more total smoke, so that the result for the smoker is the same amount, or more, of nicotine and tar.

In addition, the tiny filtration holes are often blocked by smokers with their lips or hands, thus cutting off the air that would have diluted the smoke.

Experts outside the FTC said that the options for the FTC include abandoning the test because it is misleading; trying to establish a better test method; or shifting the testing responsibility to another agency better equipped to carry out the tests, such as the Food and Drug Administration or the National Institutes on Standards and Technology, formerly the Bureau of Standards.

Scientific studies over recent years have shown that smokers get about the same amount of nicotine no matter what kind of cigarette they smoke. For example, when scientists look at the levels of nicotine in smokers' blood, they cannot tell the smokers of light cigarettes from those of full-flavored cigarettes, as high-tar and high-nicotine cigarettes are called by tobacco companies. The same is true of tar levels.

But tar levels are far lower than they were 40 years ago. At that time cigarettes had amounts of tar as high as 30 to 40 milligrams per cigarette. Now, virtually all brands are in the 5-to-15-milligram range. Nicotine levels have remained relatively stable since 1952.

"Smokers can get whatever they want in the way of nicotine," said Dr. Henningfield. "A smoker can draw 3 milligrams of nicotine out of a cigarette that is rated as a '1 milligram' yield by the FTC test."

Cigarettes each contain about 7 to 9 milligrams of nicotine. Smokers draw out about 1 milligram of nicotine regardless of the type of cigarette smoked, with a range of intake from a half-milligram to 3 milligrams.

"There is simply no information to indicate that today's so-called lower tar and nicotine cigarette gives any health benefit," said Matthew L. Meyers, an attorney for the Coalition on Smoking or Health, an anti-smoking group representing the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society. He questioned the perpetuation of a system that "falsely implies smokers should use cigarettes with lower ratings, raising major health concerns."

He added: "The FTC method is so flawed that it raises a serious question whether the method causes more harm than good."

For example, a smoker may buy a "low-nicotine" cigarette and then consciously or unconsciously smoke more cigarettes or draw deeper to get enough nicotine to satisfy himself or herself. But the smoker is getting not only more nicotine but more tar as well, which may well be higher than what the smoker would get from regular cigarettes.

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