U.S. bans 'light' cigarette labels this month

"Light" cigarettes are going up in smoke by the end of June in the U.S., but their names and packaging are getting a colourful makeover.

"Light" cigarette labels are going up in smoke by the end of June in the U.S., but their names and packaging are getting a colourful makeover.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says cigarette packs no longer can feature names such as "light," "mild," "medium" or "low," which many smokers wrongly think are less harmful than "full-flavour" cigarettes.

Cigarette makers are replacing those words with colours such as gold, silver, blue and orange on brands that make up more than half of the smokes sold across the country.

Anti-tobacco advocates say the colours are just as misleading as the words, but tobacco companies argue they have a right to let smokers know which products are which.

Companies insist the words tell smokers about the taste, feel and blend of a cigarette, not health risks. The cigarettes usually feature different filters and milder-flavoured blends.

Long years of advertising, however, emphasized measurements of lower tar and nicotine in "light" cigarettes, even though those were measured with smoking machines that don't mirror how real smokers puff. For example, smokers will inhale more deeply or smoke more cigarettes if they're not getting the amount of nicotine they want.

Studies show that about 90 per cent of smokers and nonsmokers believe that cigarettes described as "light" or have certain colours on the packages are less harmful even though "all commercial cigarettes are equally lethal," said David Hammond, a health behaviour researcher in Ontario at the University of Waterloo.

Colours shape perceptions of risks on all products, Hammond said. For example, makers of mayonnaise and pop usually use lighter colours on packaging to distinguish among diet, light and regular products.

'Not sufficient'

Hammond called the removal of those few words on cigarette packs "necessary but not sufficient measures" to improve public health or reduce false perceptions.

Other countries are considering going even further. The Australian government proposed legislation last month that would make manufacturers sell cigarettes in plain, standard packaging, without colours and logos.

More than 40 countries already have laws prohibiting terms similar to what the FDA is banning.   

In mid-2007 in Canada, three cigarette manufacturers — Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., Rothmans Benson & Hedges Inc. and JTI-Macdonald Corp. — agreed to remove "mild" and "light" from their labels.