The Myth of ‘Light’ Cigarettes

Ever thought you were doing yourself less harm when smoking a Marlboro Light? Well, you can safely bury that illusion now. Information released during a Senate committee hearing last week bolstered the case that "light" or "ultra light" cigarettes are just as harmful to your health as regular ones—if not worse. And not only that: the big tobacco companies have been aware of this fact for 30 years, according to an internal memo from Philip Morris. Some experts have warned for years that light cigarettes aren't necessarily less dangerous than regular smokes.

Philip Morris spokesman Bill Phelps said the memo released in last week's hearing has been available for several years on, a Web site created as a result of a settlement between the tobacco industry and several states in 1998. Phelps added that his company "does not imply in its marketing that lower-tar and lower-nicotine products are safer than regular cigarettes. … On our Web site we say: 'There is no safe cigarette.'"

NEWSWEEK's Thijs Niemantsverdriet discussed the memo with Allan M. Brandt, professor of the history of medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of "The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America." Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What exactly was revealed last week in the Senate?
Allan M. Brandt: At the hearing, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg released a 1975 internal memo from Philip Morris, hitherto unpublished. It shows that the company knew at that time that the "smoking robot" tests from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), on which the cigarette industry based its statements about tar and nicotine levels, were inaccurate. The FTC admitted this during Tuesday's hearing. So since the mid-1970s tobacco companies have known that people who smoked "light" cigarettes inhaled the same amount of tar and nicotine as regular-cigarette smokers—if not more.

It happens through a process that scientists and addiction experts call compensation. Smokers who use a reduced-tar product, such as light cigarettes, compensate by taking larger puffs, thus drawing more deeply into their lungs the smoke of those products. So it may well be that some of these "light" products are a greater danger than the regular cigarettes. The industry, however, has until today been allowed to market them as less dangerous to public health.

Is this really the first time it's been publicly acknowledged that "light" cigarettes may not be all that light?
No, it's been well known in tobacco control circles for a long time. What Lautenberg's hearings really make clear is that the industry has explicitly understood this for many years and deceptively marketed this product. So smokers who otherwise might have quit thought they were reducing their risks by buying these cigarettes—in vain. The tobacco industry has for at least 40 years worked hard to mislead the American public about the relative safety of their products. Recently they have started to tell the American public that they're acting as a responsible corporate citizen, and yet they persist in this very deceptive marketing practice.

If this is all true, shouldn't the tobacco companies be ordered to stop selling these so-called "light" cigarettes straightaway?
In 2006 U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the tobacco industry had deceived smokers for decades, violating the federal antiracketeering law. She also ordered that companies stop using the terms "light" and "ultra lights" on cigarette packs. And not only in their U.S. marketing but in all of their sales worldwide. I testified as an expert witness for the Department of Justice in that lawsuit. It was a monumental decision by Judge Kessler.

And? Did the tobacco companies comply?
They've fought the verdict tooth and nail. They went to the appeals court and asked to stay Judge Kessler's ruling until the full appeal could be heard. [Both the tobacco companies and the Justice Department have sought further appellate review of Kessler's decision.]

How does the new information on "light" cigarettes relate to earlier lawsuits and settlements?
In 1998 there was a landmark settlement called the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). This was exclusively between the state governments and the big tobacco companies. In exchange for an overall stop in civil litigations, the industry promised to compensate the states for Medicare and Medicaid money spent on tobacco-related diseases. The industry settled for a $240 billion figure, paid out over 25 to 30 years. So the states have received a good deal of money since. But they have spent it on whatever they wanted, at their discretion—unfortunately, very rarely on tobacco control and tobacco cessation policies. And the tobacco industry passed on a lot of those costs to consumers by raising the price of tobacco. Many people felt that after the MSA there would be radical changes in the marketing of tobacco. But the current case of "light" cigarettes shows that the tobacco industry remains healthy and aggressive in the promotion of its products that cause death and disease.

So what other steps could be taken?
The FDA could be granted authority to aggressively regulate tobacco products. This proposal is currently being discussed in a congressional committee. But the question is, will these regulations really help the public? In the past, attempts at regulation have actually benefited the industry. Take the Tobacco Labeling Act of 1984. This was when the four rotating warning labels on cigarette packs were first required by Congress. That was widely seen as a public health intervention. But we now know that industry actually supported these mild and ineffective labels, as they would potentially protect them from liability. It would enable them to say in court, "Forewarned is forearmed. The packages are labeled, so if you're harmed, it's not our responsibility."

If those warning labels actually benefit the industry more than public health, why don't we get rid of them?
I don't think we should get rid of them. We should have other warning signs instead. It has been shown in other countries that very graphic pictorial labeling does work. It discourages kids from starting smoking and encourages addicted smokers to quit. In Canada, Brazil, Thailand and the U.K. they have these very dramatic labels, which show diseased lungs, gangrenous limbs and other diseases that have been associated with cigarette smoking—a little bit like the pictures of killed fetuses that pro-life activists use. Also, they cover a significant portion of the pack. U.S. labels have not changed since 1984. Our labels are widely viewed as diluted and ineffective, especially if you compare them to the labels in other countries.

What will be the fate of "light" cigarettes?
I think that in one or two years light cigarettes will no longer exist in the U.S. While on the litigation front the U.S. has been quite innovative, Congress has been relatively weak and not particularly effective. But legislators are becoming increasingly aware of the hypocrisy of the industry when it claims that it is acting responsibly. In previous decades the industry had tremendous clout in Congress. But this kind of special-interest lobbying and manipulation of legislation is getting problematic in an age when science has determined just how harmful cigarette smoking is.

What has the federal government done recently to fight Big Tobacco?
Federally speaking, taking on the big tobacco companies has virtually come to a standstill under the Bush administration. For instance, almost every nation in the world has ratified an important World Health Organization (WHO) treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. But not the United States. The Bush administration has never sent the treaty to the Senate. The Bush administration has strong ties to the tobacco industry. Karl Rove worked as a tobacco lobbyist before joining the White House, and so have other significant figures in the Bush administration. [Rove is now a contributor to NEWSWEEK.]

Any chance of a more assertive attitude when a new president takes office?
Many of the current candidates would probably send the WHO treaty to the Senate.

If we look 10 years ahead, what do you think the situation will be?
The battleground is becoming global. Now that people in more affluent and well-educated societies are quitting smoking, the tobacco industry is very aggressive about finding new markets. Today one in five Americans smoke, as opposed to almost half of all adults a few decades ago. But worldwide there are probably more smokers now than ever before in human history. The WHO estimates that in the 21st century, approximately 1 billion people will die worldwide of tobacco-related diseases. That's 10 times the number that died in the 20th century. The real issue for the future will be to ensure that worldwide smoking becomes less instead of more prevalent.

Last question: are you a smoker yourself?
[Laughs] No, I've never smoked.