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Tobacco makers can no longer use words such as “light” and “low tar” to promote their products outside the United States, a US federal judge has ruled.
In a statement, William Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called the decision by Judge Gladys Kessler a triumph for global public health.
But one leading researcher on tobacco marketing and public health warned that cigarette makers were already finding other ways to suggest that some of their products are safer than others, especially in Europe and Australia, where “light,” “mild,” and similar adjectives have already been banned in cigarette packaging and advertisements.
“The remedies were a little light, no pun intended,” K Michael Cummings of Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, told the BMJ.
Last August Judge Kessler had found cigarette manufacturers guilty of conspiring to hide the dangers of smoking from the public for more than 50 years, in a case originally brought during the Clinton administration. As part of her judgment in the racketeering case, Judge Kessler ordered Philip Morris, R J Reynolds, Lorillard Tobacco, and British American Tobacco to stop using “light” and similar words to sell their products in the US.
The tobacco companies had asked Judge Kessler to allow them to use the terms abroad, arguing that her judgment interfered with the rights of countries outside the US to regulate tobacco sales. On 16 March she denied the request, completing the racketeering case, which the tobacco companies will appeal against.
But Judge Kessler said that another part of her decision in August, which required tobacco makers to place signs where tobacco products are sold stating that they are dangerous and addictive, didn't apply outside the US because factual evidence on point of sale marketing abroad was not presented as part of the trial.
Many studies have shown that smokers take in the same amount of tar and nicotine when they smoke a so called light cigarette, Dr Cummings noted. The bodies of both light and standard cigarettes contain similar amounts of harmful chemicals, but tiny holes have been lasered into the filters of light cigarettes to give the smoker the illusion of a “cooler,” lighter smoke, he added. Other strategies that tobacco companies use to imply that some products are less dangerous than others include using cooler colors on the wrappers of light cigarettes, wrapping filters in white paper rather than brown, and describing them with words like “superior” and “finesse.”
“It's good to eliminate those meanings because they're a fraud; the judge got it right,” Dr Cummings added. “I'm not sure the fraud will go away simply because they removed the words.”
The racketeering case has become part of the growing controversy surrounding the Bush administration's Justice Department. This month, the lead attorney for the government on the racketeering case, Shannon Eubanks, told the Washington Post that Bush administration political appointees had interfered with how she and her colleagues prosecuted the case, rewriting her closing argument and demanding that she have several key witnesses for the prosecution soften their testimony (www.washingtonpost.com, 22 Mar, “Prosecutor says Bush appointees interfered with tobacco case”).
Questions had been raised about possible political interference in the trial after the government slashed its requested penalty from $130bn (£66bn; €98bn) to $10bn (BMJ 2005;330:1468, doi: 10.1136/bmj.330.7506.1468-d). “The political people were pushing the buttons and ordering us to say what we said,” Ms Eubanks told the Washington Post.