Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cigarette label laws take effect today

Tobacco companies can't use 'light,' 'mild' to market products

By Chris Echegaray • THE TENNESSEAN • June 22, 2010

A law aimed at educating smokers that "light" or "mild" cigarettes are no less addictive goes into effect today, forcing tobacco companies to drop those terms on packaging and to market packs using color or other codes.

After the Food and Drug Administration gained the power to regulate the tobacco industry last year, one of its first acts was to change the way cigarettes can be advertised and sold. Manufacturers may distribute any leftover packs bearing the banned terms through July 21, but they can't print new ones.

Dropping labels that make smokers believe their choice is less harmful is a positive move, said Dr. Roger Zoorob, chair of Meharry Medical College's Family and Community Medicine, but it won't help current smokers overcome their addiction. He runs a smoking cessation clinic.

"I'm in favor of this law. … There is no such thing as good or light tobacco," Zoorob said. "It's about nicotine. It's harmful and addictive."

Tobacco products, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, are responsible for approximately 443,000 deaths and $193 billion in medical expenditures and lost productivity each year in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration says. In 2007, Tennessee ranked fifth in the nation for its smoking rate.

Nashville smoker Mike Leonard said he knows light cigarettes aren't any less addictive. He had quit smoking for seven years — until he tried a light cigarette six months ago. Now he's buying the cheapest brands available that promote the cigarettes' taste as light or "low tar."

"The craving was so strong that I got started again," he said.

Smokers do believe in the "light" nicotine mythology, said University of Pittsburgh professor Saul Shiffman, a smoking cessation expert and consultant. Forty percent of smokers polled in a recent survey think that a light cigarette is less harmful, he said.

"This (law) is the first step for smokers to realize that lights are not a refuge," Shiffman said. "I think this will have an impact over time."

Free samples restricted
But Mary Harper of Nashville, who smokes Carlton cigarettes, said people will continue smoking because the activity has little to do with wording on a package.

"If people have the mindset to smoke, they will," she said.

"Mine already tastes light. When people bum off me, they tell me it's like smoking air. People won't stop smoking because of the words … only if it gets too expensive."

Tennessee passed a 40-cents-a-pack tax increase on cigarettes in 2007 and saw an immediate drop in the smoking rate, but only by 1 percentage point.

John Chiaramonte, the American Cancer Society's governmental relations director for Tennessee, said the best anti-smoking measures keep people from ever getting addicted.

"The marketing has been an issue for a long time," he said.

Experts say it will take some time to see whether the new marketing regulations, part of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, have an impact.

Other aspects of the law include:

• Prohibiting distribution of free samples of cigarettes and restricting free samples of smokeless tobacco products.

• Ending tobacco company sponsorship of athletic, musical or other social events.

• Banning sale of tobacco products in vending machines except in limited adult-only venues.

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