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Reflections on the saga of tar content: why did we measure the wrong thing?

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In 1999, it seems timely to reflect on the beginnings of the campaign to reduce tar and nicotine content of cigarettes, and on the mistakes made over the past three decades.

As a persistent and experienced critic of the tobacco industry I am nevertheless surprised to find, in 1999, that they have exceeded my more pessimistic expectations, with what can only be described as a foolishly casual approach to addressing the carcinogenic content of the smoke they feed their customers, combined with an efficient and intense focus on the addictive elements.

In 1968 I became director of the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria (ACCV), Australia. My predecessor had commissioned a US analysis of the tar content of 10 randomly selected Australian brands of cigarettes by Fred Bock. I recall that we were not asked to pay for the tests, which were a simple fishing expedition.

The tar content of the sample ranged from 17–33 mg per cigarette and David Hill, then director of education in the ACCV, published this in our newsletter, Victorian Cancer News, under a headline “Victorian cigarettes a case of Russian roulette”. The responses were instantaneous.

The first were major headlines in Australian newspapers, attacks from various tobacco industry sources, and a consequential controversy, with us arguing that the levels were too high and wanting them brought down and printed on the packet.

The second was a very large increase in the sales ofKent which happened to have the lowest tar of the brands we had tested (17 mg). This experience persuaded us to set up our own testing to explore the whole market, as only the Americans were publishing this material at this time.

We commissioned Professor John Swan, a distinguished organic chemist, to organise the testing of all Australian brands, which was easily done with a …

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