July 9, 2008

FTC: Curb Tar-Nicotine Claims In Cigarette Ads

By Wendy Koch

Tobacco companies could no longer imply government approval when they advertise cigarettes as "light" or "low-tar" under a proposal announced Tuesday.

The Federal Trade Commission wants to bar manufacturers from using a test known as the "FTC method" to say a cigarette is low in tar or nicotine. Its proposal says the FTC no longer believes that measurement accurately gauges risk and does not want smokers to think some cigarettes are safe.

"We want to clarify the FTC's position," says associate director Mary Engle. "This test method does not have our stamp of approval." The proposal would rescind a 1966 policy that allowed tobacco ads to cite tar and nicotine amounts "per FTC method."

"This would represent a fundamental change" for the FTC if it is adopted, says Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. He says the FTC could sue tobacco companies if they continue to claim their cigarettes are safer based on the test.

"It fully withdraws any implication the FTC approves tar and nicotine numbers or believes some cigarettes are safer than others," Myers says.

Engle doubts that ads will look much different, as some don't mention tar and nicotine levels and others do it only in fine print.

The typical Marlboro ad cites such levels "per FTC method," but Philip Morris, the nation's No. 1 cigarette maker, has not advertised in newspapers or magazines since 2005, spokesman Bill Phelps says.

"We are reviewing the proposal," Phelps says.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the No. 2 cigarette maker, is also reviewing the proposal, spokesman David Howard says. He says adult smokers should receive information that enables them to make "an informed choice on the relative risks of each product."

The FTC proposal says that was why it began allowing tobacco ads to state tar and nicotine levels "per FTC method" in 1966. It was believed then that the amount of tar in a cigarette could reduce a smoker's risk of cancer.

The FTC says tar and nicotine levels, as measured by the test, fell dramatically in the past four decades, but it found that the levels are poor predictors of risk. It says smokers of lower-yield cigarettes compensate by taking bigger, deeper or more frequent puffs to obtain the amount of nicotine they desire.

Engle says if the proposal becomes final -- the public has until Aug. 12 to comment -- the FTC will tell consumers not to use advertised tar and nicotine levels as a guide to safe smoking.


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