Fri, Aug 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Big Tobacco faces a darker future without `lights'

A US judge has ruled that tobacco firms have lied for decades about the lethal effects of smoking -- and ordered them to stop using descriptor terms on packages


They are the world's best-selling cigarettes, a fashion prop for celebrities, an icon of marketing and the preferred smoke of millions.

But if a federal judge has her way, Marlboro Lights will soon be no more in the US.

Already banned in the EU and Brazil, so-called descriptor terms on cigarette packets such as "lights," "low tar" and "mild" will be outlawed from next January under a recent US ruling.

If implemented, the ruling by US District Judge Gladys Kessler will force tobacco giants such as Philip Morris USA to switch to less loaded descriptions for their brands.

Richard Pollay, professor of marketing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and a historian of tobacco advertising, said the impact should be limited.

"They will quickly find other language toward the same ends, for example `soft,' `smooth,' `gentle,' `kind,' etc," he said.

"It is important to the industry to give smokers some reassurance -- however false -- that the product and brands are risk controlled, even if not totally risk free," he said.

But the National Association of Convenience Stores, whose members account for over 63 percent of all the cigarettes sold in the US, expressed some concern.

"Cigarette customers are very particular," said Jeff Lenard, the association's director of communications, adding, "You need to have the exact brand and type they want, or they'll go somewhere else."

In her hefty 1,683-page opinion delivered last week, Kessler sided with the US government in arguing that "Big Tobacco" had lied for decades about the lethal effects of smoking.

But in a major victory for the industry, she shied away from imposing any punitive damages and rejected government demands for the cigarette manufacturers to fund a US$10 billion quit-smoking campaign.

The most hard-hitting aspect of the ruling would be the ban on terms like "lights," although Philip Morris's parent group Altria said it would appeal and Camel maker RJ Reynolds is considering its options.

Anti-tobacco campaigners argue that such terms have been key to keeping smokers, particularly women and teenagers, smoking despite the well-publicized hazards of their habit.

In the EU, where such terms were banned in 2003, Philip Morris switched over to color codings for its top-selling Marlboro brand.

For a transition period, it was allowed to keep the Lights label alongside the new name, Marlboro Gold. Camel Ultra Lights, which in non-US markets is sold by Japan Tobacco International (JTI), re-emerged as Camel Smooth.

The impact on sales appears to have been small. Philip Morris International (PMI) says its total cigarette shipments in Europe fell 2.7 percent last year from 2004, but Marlboro sales rose in key markets such as Britain and France.

"Generally since the time the EU banned descriptors we haven't seen anything that would suggest it's negatively impacted sales in these countries," PMI spokesman Greg Prager said.

In fact, companies like JTI say they have never used the term "lights" to denote a healthier cigarette. The description applies merely to the taste, they insist.

JTI highlighted annual sales figures that showed continued volume growth in cigarette sales across Europe and other developed markets last year.

"Given the legislative environment, you might also find it interesting that some European countries belong to our core markets and contribute significantly to this result," JTI media relations director Heike Maria Lau said.

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