Aug. 7, 2000 (Chicago) -- "Light" or "mild" cigarettes provide little real health benefits over regular brands, tobacco control advocates maintained Monday at the 11th World Conference on Tobacco OR Health.
"Low-yield" brands with reduced nicotine and tar levels have grown in popularity since the late 1960s to take up about two-thirds of the U.S. cigarette market. This growth has been spurred by increasing health concerns over cigarettes. But anti-tobacco leaders worry that these brands give smokers a false impression of being less harmful.
William Farone, an industry "whistleblower" as former director of applied research at Philip Morris, tells WebMD, "I don't think people generally understand that smoking a low-cigarette isn't safer."
In a presentation Monday, David Burns, MD, of the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine, said, "The evidence does not suggest that a meaningful reduction in risk has been produced by shifting to low-yield cigarettes."
Gregory Connolly, director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program, tells WebMD, "The evidence would show, in fact, that they are as harmful as conventional cigarettes." According to Ann McNeill, PhD, a public health consultant, low-yield cigarettes have brought "little, if any, benefit" to public health and possible health harm to the degree that they have kept smokers from quitting altogether.
Lung cancer is still the leading cancer among U.S. men, and in 1987 it began outpacing breast cancer among American women.
Farone noted that internal documents have revealed that the tobacco industry has long been aware that people who smoke lighter cigarettes often compensate for lower nicotine levels by smoking more cigarettes. In addition, he said, these smokers might draw smoke more deeply into their lungs, triggering different types of lung cancer.
According to Farone, a lighter cigarette "still has all the [cancer-causing agents], and maybe even more." Regardless of its nicotine and tar levels, tobacco smoke contains carbon monoxide and cancer-causing nitrosamines. Moreover, tobacco firms use a large list of additives in cigarettes that have unknown health effects.
European Union health ministers have approved guidelines that outlaw brands being marketed as light or mild. Peter Boyle, a researcher from Italy's European Institute of Oncology, reported results that found a ninefold difference among 29 countries in nitrosamine levels in cigarettes. He and many other tobacco control advocates believe that cigarettes should be regulated for levels of the cancer-causing compound.
That may be a long time coming in the U.S., where cigarettes and their component ingredients are not strictly controlled, and the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the FDA lacks the authority to regulate cigarettes.
Clifford Douglas, a tobacco control consultant, tells WebMD, "That [government] oversight is essential. Otherwise, we've got an industry self-regulating under a very imperfect system of public pressure and individual states." Congress may take action next year to regulate tobacco in some way, but the tobacco industry holds impressive clout with many lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Connolly is trying to get Massachusetts to set state regulatory standards for cigarettes based on their toxicity and addictiveness.
He tells WebMD, "If Jesse Helms wants kids smoking Marlboro Light 100s in North Carolina, that's fine with us." He notes that before his state can act, however, "We still have four active lawsuits against us."
As for the industry, RJ Reynolds is test-marketing the Eclipse cigarette, which heats tobacco rather than burns it and may reduce some of a cigarette's toxicity.
Tobacco industry representatives have not been invited to this meeting, but organizers said that they were free to register and have attended past meetings.