Got a Light? New FDA Rules Won't Snuff Out Harmful 'Light' Cigarettes

Tobacco companies can no longer label their cigarettes as
Tobacco companies can no longer label their cigarettes as

In an attempt to make cigarettes less attractive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration enacted stricter advertising and packaging regulations Tuesday. The new rules -- which come on the first anniversary of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a law that gave the Food and Drug Administration wide-ranging powers to regulate the tobacco industry -- require larger health warnings on cigarette packages and ban tobacco companies from marketing to children; selling T-shirts, baseball caps or other apparel that advertises their products; or sponsoring sports, music or other cultural events.

But will the rules really make any difference? While the new restrictions are all significant, the biggest change has to do with packaging. Under Tuesday's ruling, companies can no longer use the terms "light," "ultra light," "mild" and "low tar" to suggest that some cigarettes are less harmful than others. However, companies are retaining the color coding long associated with these different types of cigarettes, making them as recognizable, to smokers, as ever.

Different Designs, Same Tobacco Blend

Although many consumers think that tobacco companies use recipes for each of their cigarette lines, the truth is that "full flavor" and light cigarettes use the same tobacco blend, but have slightly different designs. Light cigarettes (or the cigarettes formerly known as "light") have small holes near the filter, and as the smoker inhales, air comes in through the perforations, diffusing the smoke. Ultra light cigarettes have even larger holes, permitting more air and further thinning out the smoke.

That doesn't make them any better for you. As a case in point, take my experience as a former smoker. In the beginning, I smoked full-strength cigarettes, often going for super-tarry European blends like Balkan Sobranies or 555s that left my lungs feeling like a freshly-paved road. Later, when I decided to quit smoking, I switched to lights, then to ultra lights. While the step-downs were initially difficult, I soon learned that, when I was desperate for a nice big hit of nicotine and tar, I could easily plug the filter holes. I also found that switching to lighter cigarettes inspired me to smoke more often.

As taxes started driving up the price of name-brand cancer sticks, I also learned about color coding. While various companies have distinct tobacco blends, many of them use similar packaging. Thus, Marlboro's full-flavor cigarettes come in a red box, as do Doral's, Basic's and several other brands. Lights generally come in a gold box, menthols come in green, and ultra lights are either silver or sky blue. In fact, when I ran out of cigarettes while on vacation in Eastern Europe, I found the same packaging colors. Over there, the ultra light brand that I bought was named "Start," which seemed oddly appropriate.

Who Needs Words When You've Got Colors?

As some smokers have pointed out, the commonality of color choices reduces the significance of the "light" and "ultra light" designations. After all, many customers simply ask for "Marlboro Reds," and it's not a big jump to "Basic Blues" or "Merit Golds." In fact, Marlboro is banking on consumer comfort with the current color codes. Henceforth, "Marlboro Lights" will be called "Marlboro Gold Label" and ultra lights will sell under the moniker "Silver Label."

Critics have already attacked Marlboro's attempts to circumvent the new regulations. Before the ban, the cigarette company told consumers: "Your Marlboro Lights pack is changing. But your cigarette stays the same. In the future, ask for 'Marlboro in the gold pack.'" The FDA sent a letter to the company, questioning the move and asking for documentation to determine if Marlboro was attempting to circumvent the ban.

While the answer is pretty obvious, the bigger question is why Marlboro even bothered. As long as the current cigarette culture remains, it doesn't matter if the packs are labeled "light," "low tar," "featherweight" or "ultra fluffy." Customers will remember that red means harsh, gold means lighter and silver or blue mean lightest. So if the FDA wants to get really serious about cracking down on the myth of "light" cigarettes, it needs to go after the color system.