Taste the Rainbow: Cigarette Makers’ Colorful Answer to FDA Packaging Regs

Are the latest batch of cigarette pack redesigns meant to boost sales or skirt FDA regulations?

Taste the Rainbow: Cigarette Makers’ Colorful Answer to FDA Packaging Regs

This past June, the U.S. Senate empowered the FDA to oversee the marketing and packaging of tobacco products. Among the FDA’s first targets: controversial descriptors like “light,” “mild,” and “low tar,” terms that regulators claim improperly imply healthful qualities (and are already banned in dozens of countries around the world). While tobacco companies have until June 22, 2010, to drop the language from their marketing, some brands are already evolving the language and colors on their packaging. Manufacturers claim they are simply communicating relevant brand attributes to consumers, but health advocacy groups argue the changes are intended to circumvent the new laws. The FDA has stated that the changes are under review.


Fast Company tapped two tobacco control experts: David Hammond, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, and Maansi Bansal-Travers, a research scientist with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. They provided their take on the industry’s reaction to the new regulations. Is it appropriate advertising or marketing malfeasance? Take a look for yourself at the slides that follow and let us know what you think.

pall mall

“As marketing restrictions become stronger the pack becomes the best marketing tool,” Hammond says. “When the words come off the pack, the industry relies on colors to a greater extent then they used to.”

For example, Pall Mall recently removed descriptors like “full flavor” and “light,” relying entirely on the color of the pack and the names of colors to identify each flavor.

“Of course, brands have always used colors,” Hammond says. “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.”

In other words, as the flavors get “lighter,” so the do the colors. For example, Pall Mall’s Ultra Lights, while a vibrant orange, are still the lightest of the line. (The box was once light blue but was changed to orange in 2007 to avoid confusion with the blue Lights box.) The lighter the color, the healthier it appears to many smokers. In one of Hammond’s recent studies, 80% of those questioned (smokers and non-smokers) believed that cigarettes packaged in a light-blue box would taste better, would contain less tar, and would be safer than cigarettes packaged in a dark-blue box.


“Orange is a very interesting choice,” Bansal-Travers says. “No other brand I can think of uses orange as a cigarette pack color, but orange is certainly the lightest that PM uses, creating a spectrum of color and trying to equate that with the spectrum of risk.”

Primary design changes
: Flavor descriptors, such as “Filter” and “Light,” have been dropped, replaced with the names of colors.

Secondary design changes
: The phrase “Famous American Cigarettes” has been moved to the bottom. While the logo and Latin phrases “Per aspera ad astra” (“Through hardships to the stars”) and “In hoc signo vinces” (“By this sign you shall conquer”) remain, the phrases “KING SIZE BOX” and “Wherever particular people congregate” have been removed from the front of the boxes.


For its Salem brand, manufacturer RJ Reynolds has changed the coloring of the packs and the descriptor terms. While the formerly “full flavor” box remains green, the shades of green now get lighter to mirror the intensity of the flavors. “You can manipulate people’s perceptions of risk even by changing the shade of a color,” Hammond says.

Meanwhile, banned terms like “light” and “ultra light” have been dropped for words like “gold” and “silver,” which many smokers perceive to be healthier and easier to kick, studies show. For example, Salem Ultra Lights are now Salem Silvers.


“It’s no coincidence that the lighter brands have lighter colors,” Hammond says. “The same is true if you walk down the supermarket aisle; white is typically held to be healthy.”

Travers agrees. “Salems are an interesting change because they’re changing coloring of the pack and the descriptor term,” she says. “Now they’ve incorporated more white and silver as it goes from ‘Box’ to ‘Gold Box’ and ‘Silver Box.’ The incorporation of more white and lighter colors implies less risk.”

Primary design changes: “Full flavor,” “Lights,” and “Ultra Lights” have all been dropped. In place of “Green Box,” the names “Box,” “Gold Box,” and “Silver Box” have been added.

Secondary design changes: Salem has replaced the black half of its Ying-Yang logo with green, moving the logo from the middle of the pack to the upper right corner. The terms “smooth” and “box” have been removed from the bottom of the pack.


“Similar to some of the others, Monarch has simply taken off the descriptor and replaced it with a color, which we’ve seen in many other countries,” says Travers. According to her, minor changes make it easy for customers and retailers alike to continue to refer to each flavor by its old name. “Anytime I’ve bought the color-coded packs I’ll ask using the old terminology and they’ll hand me a new box,” she says. After similar regulations passed in Canada several years ago, some manufacturers supplied retailers with guides instructing them which colors corresponded to which flavors.


Faced with such minor changes, Hammonds believes it’s unlikely the FDA will object. “When you’re just going after one or two words, it’s just a cat and mouse game,” he says. “You have to give full credit to the industry, they’re very good marketers and they’re doing the best they can.”

Design changes: “Filter,” “Lights,” and “Ultra Lights” have all been dropped for Red, Gold, and Blue, respectively.


As with Salem, Misty has changed the colors and names on its boxes.

“Misty went through a couple changes,” says Travers. “I recently saw a pack that had the new design with the old descriptor. It’s about brand recall and retaining customers–small gradual changes inform people that the look might be changing, but it’s the same product.”

Primary design changes
: “Lights” and “Ultra Lights,” which appeared twice on the old packaging, have been replaced by the name of a color.


Secondary design changes: The word “SLIMS” has been dropped from all packs. The logo has changed from blurry wash of colors to a more pronounced band of color that corresponds to the flavor in the shape of a reverse S.


In contrast to the traditional colors used by many other manufacturers, Capri has replaced the descriptors like “filter” and “lights” with the colors magenta, violet, jade, and indigo, reinforcing the change with a color-coded swirl of smoke on each box.

Such changes are intended to spark what Hammond calls “sensory transfer.” “You can actually change people’s physiological perceptions of the smoke flavor with different colors and imagery,” he says. “Many smokers will say a cigarette from one box tastes different–or tastes healthier–than the same cigarette in a different colored box.”

Primary design changes: Terms like “Filter” and “Lights” have been replaced by the names of colors.

Secondary design changes: Capri’s previous logo, reminiscent of an orchid, has been dropped for artistic swirls of colored smoke. The words “super slims” and the gold frame and on the front of the box have been removed.

virginia slims

Integrating more “healthful” white into its boxes, packs of Philip Morris’s Virginia Slims “Superslims” have evolved from dark purple and green packaging to largely pearl-colored boxes. Terms like “light” and “ultra light” will likely be dropped eventually, leaving retailers and customers to identify them by recently added bands of color.

“Virginia Slims came out with Superslims a few years ago as a purse pack,” says Travers. “They’re half the diameter of regular Virginia Slims, and meant for a cigarette break. They’ve been popular; they’ve gone from two to four varieties.”

Primary design changes
: Darker colors have been dropped for mostly white packs with bands of color.

Secondary design changes: Watercolor-like bands of color unique to each flavor have replaced the standard ornate paisley design.


Photos: Maansi Bansal-Travers, Ph.D