Regulation of Descriptors

Descriptors such as the term 'lights' are used by manufacturers to differentiate a cigarette brand’s strength of taste and flavor, usually in comparison to a parent brand and usually reflecting lower tar yields, as measured by machine test methods

Public health advocates have argued that descriptors mislead consumers into believing a low-tar cigarette brand is safer than a full-flavor brand, and some researchers report that consumers who smoke low-tar cigarettes inhale as much tar and nicotine as from full-flavor brands.

As a result, many countries, including all members of the European Union, have prohibited the use of certain descriptors. In addition to the E.U. Member States, many countries, including Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey and Venezuela, have banned the use of descriptors such as ‘lights.’”

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control also requires parties to adopt and implement measures to ensure that tobacco product packaging does not include terms that create “the false impression that a particular tobacco product is less harmful than other tobacco products.” The FCTC states that misleading terms “may include…‘low-tar,’ ‘light,’ ‘ultra-light’ or ‘mild.’

Our View

Because smokers have varying preferences, we offer products with differing yields of tar and nicotine, as measured by standardized test methods Where permitted, we use terms such as ‘low-tar,’ ‘light,’ ‘ultra-light,’ ‘medium’ and ‘mild’ to facilitate consumers’ ability to distinguish among these different product offerings.

We agree that manufacturers should not be permitted to state that one brand of tobacco products is less harmful than another if it is not. We also believe that smokers should be informed, as we have done on our website for many years that they should not assume that brand descriptors indicate with precision either the actual amount of tar and nicotine that they will inhale from any particular cigarette or the relative amount of tar and nicotine as compared to competing cigarette brands.

However, we believe that it is appropriate to continue to differentiate on this basis, and that some descriptors help communicate these differences to adult smokers. Rather than indiscriminately banning descriptors, regulations should mandate communicating to consumers (as we do on this website) that these descriptors do not mean that a cigarette brand is safer or that a brand will necessarily deliver lower tar and nicotine yields. While we believe this is a better approach than a blanket ban, we have not and will not challenge legislation that bans the use of terms such as ‘low-tar,’ ‘light,’ ‘ultra-light,’ ‘medium’ or ‘mild.’

We are firmly opposed to laws that seek to prohibit terms, trademarks, and other packaging elements that under any reasonable interpretation have nothing to do with the underlying rationale of descriptor bans (i.e., the concern about consumer understanding of low tar yields). For example, a few countries recently enacted regulations that prohibit the use of descriptive terms such as ‘famous,’ ‘premium’ or ‘international,’ and one country has restricted cigarettes to one pack variation per brand. Such laws are attempts to prevent manufacturers from competing by limiting innovation, preventing the use of trademarks and other intellectual property, and restricting the normal course of trade far beyond that necessary to address public health. 

Finally, it is important to remember that as of today, there is no cigarette on the market which the public health community endorses as offering reduced risk. If smokers are concerned about the risks of smoking, quitting is by far their best alternative for reducing those risks. In the future it may be possible to substantiate that a product has the potential to reduce the risk of smoking-related diseases. Developing regulations governing consumer communications about such products is an important component of tobacco policy.

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