FDA Calls Marlboro Out on Creative Marketing of "Light" Cigarettes

Marlboro ad

Cigarette manufacturers, beware: the FDA won't stand for any creative workarounds to its ruling requiring companies to remove descriptors like "light," "mild," and "low tar" from cigarette packaging. The New York Times reports that the FDA is opening an investigation into Altria Group, the maker of Marlboro Lights, because of notes on packaging that read, "Your Marlboro Lights package is changing, but your cigarette stays the same," and "In the future, ask for Marlboro in the gold pack."

The FDA's letter to Altria warns the company against its latest misleading tactics:

By stating that only the packaging is changing, but the cigarettes will stay the same, the onsert suggests that Marlboro in the gold pack will have the same characteristics as Marlboro Lights, including any mistaken attributes associated with the "light" cigarettes. Although the onsert includes some disclaimer language, Congress found that disclaimers have been ineffective in eliminating mistaken beliefs regarding "low tar" and "light" cigarettes. We are concerned that the disclaimers in your onsert would likewise be ineffective in mitigating any potential mistaken beliefs that may be perpetuated by your onsert.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the brand will have to change its packaging again—the FDA has thus far only asked Altria to hand over market research documents related to the switch. But the FDA's investigation doesn't bode well for cigarette brands like Salem, Misty, and Pall Mall that have also tweaked their packaging in anticipation of the ruling's June 22 start date.

Like Marlboro, Pall Mall nixed descriptors like "light" and "full flavor" and now relies solely on the color of its packaging as to signal tobacco intensity. And Salem recently changed its packaging to different shades of green to mark increased strength of flavor.

Colors have a discernible effect on consumers, according to David Hammond, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. In a recent study, Hammond found that 80% of people questioned (both smokers and non-smokers) thought that cigarettes packaged in a light-blue box would taste better, contain less tar, and be safer than cigarettes in a dark-blue box. "The so called strengths of brands are aligned with the strengths of colors, and many smokers use colors as an indicator of risk. For example, red is perceived to be stronger than blue," he explains.

Perhaps, then, Marlboro doesn't need its explanatory onsets to alert consumers of packaging changes—the changes in coloring achieve the same goal.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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1 Comments

  • Nunzio Martin

    Thank god for the FDA, I didn't know cigarettes were bad for me ..... really?!