Low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes are not what they seem, scientists 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," said Judith D. Wilkenfeld, assistant director in the FTC's Division of Advertising Practices.

"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 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 regular cigarettes. The same is true of tar levels.

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

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