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Divergence between strength indicators in packaging and cigarette engineering: a case study of Marlboro varieties in Australia and the USA
  1. Bill King1,
  2. Ron Borland1,
  3. Shadeed Abdul-Salaam2,
  4. Gregory Polzin2,
  5. David Ashley2,
  6. Clifford Watson2,
  7. Richard J O'Connor3
  1. 1The Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
  2. 2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
  3. 3Roswell Park Cancer Institute, USA
  1. Correspondence to Bill King, The Cancer Council Victoria, 100 Drummond Street, Carlton, Victoria 3053, Australia; bill.king{at}cancervic.org.au

Abstract

Objectives To investigate how the tobacco industry is adapting to regulatory action in accordance with provisions of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control that targets misleading packaging and labelling. To relate the packaging and labelling of new cigarette varieties to their construction and performance.

Methods The principal design features and tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide yields of the Marlboro ‘brand family’ in Australia were measured and compared with those of the US equivalents.

Results Marlboro Red and Blue/Medium, could not be differentiated in preliminary tests in Australia, but were different in the USA. However, yield testing showed Marlboro Blue/Medium did not have lower tar and nicotine yields in either country, indeed being higher in Australia.

Conclusions Colour can be used to market cigarettes as ‘milder’, independently of ISO yields and ‘Light’/’Mild’ descriptors. Banning of ‘Light’ and ‘Mild’ brand descriptors may be inadequate to end belief in less harmful cigarettes so long as the tobacco industry remains free to engineer ‘mildness’ and to use colours, other descriptors and design features to characterise varieties it wants to market as ‘milder’.

  • Packaging and labelling
  • tobacco products
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Introduction

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), under Article 11, mandates the removal of misleading terms from tobacco product packaging and advertising. The principal aim is to end the ‘low tar’ fallacy, which has led many smokers to believe that brands with lower ISO-measured tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide yields (which have mostly been labelled ‘Light’ or ‘Mild’) are somehow less harmful than ‘full-flavour’ or ‘full-strength’ cigarettes.1–6 These beliefs have been persistent, despite overwhelming evidence accumulating over the past four decades that lower yield cigarettes do not reduce smokers' health risks.7 8

The principal features by which lower yield cigarettes differ from “regular” ones are: reduced tobacco content, higher static burn rate, longer filter tips and higher filter ventilation levels.9–12 Filter vent holes allow air drawn through them to dilute the mainstream smoke during machine smoking so each puff exiting the filter has effectively reduced mainstream smoke constituent concentration compared to the initial levels adjacent to the burning cone of the cigarette. However, smokers do not smoke the same way machines do. Smokers can respond to filter ventilation by taking larger puffs and/or partially block the vent holes with their fingers or lips in order to achieve desired levels of nicotine intake.13 14 Diluted smoke from a highly ventilated cigarette is generally weaker tasting and less harsh and irritating than that from a ‘full-flavour’ cigarette. Strong taste, harshness and irritation encourage belief that smoking is harmful, whereas their comparative absence (henceforth ‘mildness’) when smoking lower yield cigarettes encourages belief that they are indeed less harmful than ‘full-strength’ cigarettes.11 Evidence from both independent research and tobacco industry documents show that the information provided by ‘Light’ and ‘Mild’ labels and tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide yields interact with these sensations to enhance smokers' beliefs that ‘milder’ cigarettes are less harmful.5 6

Other terms and visual pack design features may also contribute to perceptions of mildness, and, by extension, relative harmfulness. For instance, Philip Morris's packaging research for Marlboro Ultra Lights included an experiment in which the same test cigarettes were given to smokers in either red or blue prototype packs.15 Marlboro Red usual brand smokers preferred the test cigarettes in the red pack to those in the blue pack and were more likely to respond that those in the blue pack were ‘too mild’, ‘not easy drawing’ and ‘burned too fast’. Conversely, subjects who usually smoked low-tar brands other than Marlboro were more likely to describe the test cigarettes in the red pack as ‘too harsh’ than those in the blue pack. Recent studies by Hammond and colleagues16 17 found that pack colours and terms like ‘smooth’ (which have been used to replace ‘light’/‘mild’ terms) influence smokers' beliefs about health risks and ease of quitting.

A number of countries have moved to ban misleading use of terms like ‘Light’, ‘Mild’ and ‘Low Tar’ so as to comply with the requirements of the FCTC. Australia was among the first of these, implementing two major reforms. As a result of an investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) into possible deceptive and misleading conduct by the manufacturers in the marketing of ‘Light’ and ‘Mild’ brands, the three manufacturers agreed to end the use of ‘Light’ and ‘Mild’ brand descriptors progressively between mid 2005 and early 2006. (Approximately 90% of Australian market share has been held by brand varieties including ‘Light’ or ‘Mild’ descriptors in their names since the mid 1990s.12) There was also a change in reporting requirements for tobacco products, under the Australian Trade Practices Act, removing a previous obligation to report ISO tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide yield figures on packs, and replacing yield figures with a common descriptive statement about the hazardous constituents of tobacco smoke from March 2006. However, under this new regulatory regime, the Australian tobacco industry remains free to use alternative brand descriptors (such as ‘smooth’ and ‘fine’), along with colour coding of packs to differentiate varieties within brand families.18 In contrast to the situation in Australia post 2006, the USA had not prohibited the use of ‘light’ and ‘mild’ descriptors at the time of writing, although the FDA legislation passed in June 2009 mandates their eventual removal. While the USA has never mandated tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide yield information be printed on packs, some brands have had tar yields printed on the packs and in promotional material.

These recent changes in regulatory environments between Australia and the USA make comparisons of brand families sold in both markets potentially useful for the purpose of understanding how the tobacco industry is likely to respond to implementation of FCTC Article 11 provisions internationally. A study of the Marlboro brand families in Australia and the USA was motivated by a chance observation by one of the authors (BK). When ‘Light’ and ‘Mild’ descriptors were prohibited and yield figures were removed from packs in Australia, the two existing Marlboro varieties continued as Marlboro Red and Marlboro Gold, with the pack colours providing the sole means for consumers to differentiate them. A third menthol variety, Marlboro Green, completed the brand family. However, two new varieties, Marlboro Blue and Marlboro Silver, appeared in late 2007, more than a year after the regulatory changes described above.

When one of the authors (BK) first saw Marlboro Blue on an in-store display in September 2007 and asked a local shopkeeper about it, the shopkeeper held up three different Marlboro packs and explained: “This one is full strength (Red), this one is light (Gold) and this one is middle (Blue).” One month later, when Marlboro Silver appeared, the shopkeeper informed BK: “This is the same as the old 4 mg strength.” Further discussions with retailers confirmed a consistent perception of a mildness spectrum. The placement of Marlboro packs on shelves (Red, Blue, Gold, Silver and Green, running from left to right) also tacitly places the two newer varieties in ‘mid strength’ and ‘ultra mild’ positions on the mildness spectrum, as there is a convention in Australia for all brand families to be presented on the shelves with the ‘full-flavour’ variant at the left, running through the ‘milder’ varieties and finishing on the right with the menthol variety (or varieties). Furthermore, a website marketing Australian brands (http://www.tobacco.net.au last accessed on 23 Dec 2009) ‘informs’ anyone seeking information about the Marlboro brand family that Marlboro Red is a ‘12 mg’ brand, whereas both Marlboro Blue and Marlboro Gold are ‘8 mg.’

We examined how the Australian Marlboro varieties related to each other with preliminary tests of basic engineering features, including filter ventilation, draw resistance, filter weight and length, total weight and tobacco weight. These tests confirmed that Marlboro Silver had the highest level of filtration and filter ventilation, consistent with how it was marketed. However, Marlboro Red and Marlboro Blue could not be differentiated using these preliminary physical tests, raising the possibility that Marlboro Red and Marlboro Blue were in fact the same cigarette in different packaging, rather than Marlboro Blue being constructed to have taste and harshness/irritation characteristics intermediate between Marlboro Red and Marlboro Gold.

We initiated a more detailed study, comparing the Australian Marlboro brand family members with each other on a broader range of physical parameters as well as standard ISO tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide yields. We also matched the Australian Marlboro brand family with five members of the US Marlboro brand family that appeared prima facie to be the most similar to determine whether the differences in engineering features seen in Australia were mirrored in another tobacco market.

Methods

Products purchased

The Australian cigarettes were purchased from three different retail outlets in central and suburban Melbourne in 2008. The US cigarettes were purchased from local retail outlets in greater metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Physical parameters

Cigarette length, diameter and weight, filter ventilation and open and closed draw resistance were all measured using the Cerulean C2 instrument (Milton Keynes, UK). Filter length was measured manually. At least three measurements were taken for each parameter and the average recorded.

Mainstream smoke deliveries of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide

Prior to smoking the cigarettes were removed from the packs, placed in an environmental chamber, and conditioned for 24 hours to a 60% relative humidity at 22°C. Cigarettes were smoked using a standard smoking regimen with a 35-ml puff volume of 2 seconds' duration every 60 seconds on an automated linear 16-port ASM 500 smoking machine (Cerulean, Milton Keynes, UK) to a butt length of either filter +8 mm or filter paper overwrap +3 mm, whichever was greater. Total particulate matter was measured on the Cambridge filter pad (CFP) using an analytical balance. Mainstream smoke nicotine and water deliveries were determined from extraction of the CFP in 2-propanol. Nicotine and water levels in the extracts were analysed and quantified using gas chromatography with flame ionisation and thermal conductivity detectors as previously reported.19 Tar refers to the remaining total particulate matter after subtracting the nicotine and water content. The carbon monoxide levels were measured using infrared spectrometry. All testing was conducted at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tobacco Chemistry Laboratory, Atlanta, GA. The mainstream smoke delivery findings were confirmed against a second set of smoke delivery tests at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using a different analytical method. The findings were further confirmed by commercial testing at a private contract laboratory. Statistical evaluations were done using JMP Software (SAS Institute Inc, Cary, NC).

Results

The basic engineering features of both the Australian and US Marlboro brand families were measured (table 1). Australian Marlboro Red and Blue were not readily distinguishable on the basis of physical characteristics, confirming the preliminary findings. By contrast, US Marlboro Medium had longer filters and more filter venting than US Marlboro Red. The US Lights and Ultra Lights had lower levels of filter venting than the matched Australian varieties.

Table 1

Pack characteristics and physical properties for US and Australian Marlboro cigarettes

As can be seen from table 2, Marlboro Red and Marlboro Blue were differentiated from the other brands by the standard FTC tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide test. Marlboro Blue had the highest tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide yields, the highest puff count and the highest nicotine yield per puff. It also had a lower tar to nicotine ratio than Marlboro Red, despite having the same filter ventilation level. While US Marlboro Red and Marlboro Medium had different physical properties, they had very similar tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide yields, in part because the Medium delivered, on average, an extra puff than the Reds. The US Lights and Ultra Lights had progressively lower yields than Marlboro Red and Marlboro Medium, as expected. However, while the ‘stronger’ two members of Australian brand family had higher yields than their US equivalents, the ‘milder’ two members of the Australian brand family had lower average yield of tar and CO, but comparable nicotine yields compared to their US equivalents.

Table 2

Mainstream smoke deliveries measured for US and Australian Marlboro cigarettes

An analysis of means was performed for nicotine, tar, carbon monoxide, puff number and nicotine filler content using the Tukey-Kramer analysis of variance (p<0.05). The Marlboro Blue nicotine delivery was statistically significant higher than all the other cigarette varieties. Mainstream nicotine levels in the Australian Marlboro Blue and Red were statistically higher than the US Marlboro full-flavour variety. The nicotine levels in the paired Australian Gold/US Light and Australian Gold/US Ultra Light were statistically similar. The US Marlboro Menthol had nicotine deliveries substantially higher than the Australian Green; however, such a difference is not surprising given the larger difference in filter ventilation between these two varieties (table 1). Much smaller differences were observed for the mainstream smoke deliveries for tar and carbon monoxide. No statistically significant differences in tar or carbon monoxide levels were observed among the Australian Red, Australian Blue, US full flavour and US Medium varieties.

In addition to filter ventilation, other factors that influence machine-smoked mainstream smoke deliveries are tobacco weight, filter design, and static burn rate. Tobacco weights are fairly consistent among the brand pairs (table 1) and this is also reflected in the consistent tar and carbon monoxide deliveries. Filter design, especially filter length, and static burn rate will influence the puff counts. No statistically significant differences were observed between the Australian Red, Blue, Gold, Green and US Medium; however, these varieties did have statistically (p>0.05) more puffs than the remaining brands. Analysis of the nicotine content in the tobacco filler of the Australian brands showed higher levels in the Blue compared to the Red, Silver and Gold (table 3). However, means comparisons between the Blue and Red varieties found no statistically significance difference in terms of filler nicotine levels. The Australian Silver and Gold varieties had similar nicotine filler levels and were statistically lower than the Blue and Red varieties.

Table 3

Nicotine analysis of tobacco filler content in select Australian cigarette brands

Discussion

We found that Australian Marlboro Red and Marlboro Blue were in fact different cigarettes in terms of their performance, even though they could not be clearly differentiated by assessing major physical characteristics. Contrary to initial expectations, Marlboro Blue is likely to be a “stronger” cigarette than Marlboro Red, based on standardised machine-smoking deliveries. Marlboro Blue had higher tar and nicotine yields and higher nicotine per puff. The tar-to-nicotine ratio was also lower for Marlboro Blue than Marlboro Red. The higher nicotine per puff and lower tar-to-nicotine ratio are both consistent with Marlboro Blue being harsher than Marlboro Red. Higher nicotine per puff generally means more harshness.20 21 Lower tar-to-nicotine ratios also generally mean fewer pleasant flavours and aromas in the smoke to mask the harshness of the nicotine.20 21 Although it is plausible that factors we have not tested for (such as concentrations of sugars or humectants) could be counteracting causes of the relative ‘mildness’ of the different varieties, it is less plausible that these could over-ride the differences we found. We thus conclude that Marlboro Blue is unlikely to be a ‘milder’ cigarette than Marlboro Red.

Given Philip Morris's internal research showing that blue packs evoked more experiences of ‘mildness’ than did red ones, our findings suggests that pack colour is being successfully used to invite Marlboro Blue smokers to believe they are smoking a milder cigarette. In the USA, analogous perceptions of difference may be generated by the term ‘Medium.’ We acknowledge that there is no study in the public domain assessing the extent to which smokers actually perceive Australian Marlboro Blue and US Marlboro Medium as “milder” than Marlboro Red. We can only conclude that the company has been successful in marketing these products, given that they are still on the market in both countries.

The tobacco industry has used new brand varieties for years as a way of attracting new consumers and preventing existing ones from “out-switching” to competitors' brands.22 23 Studies have shown that consumers perceive the information that is displayed on packs including the use of terms such as ‘mild’ and ‘light’, pack colours, and tar and nicotine delivery numbers to not only describe the differences in the harshness of brands but differences in harm from use.24 25 It has been shown previously that smokers who are concerned about their health, when presented with alternatives, will often choose an implied lower harm product rather than making a quit attempt.24 26 27 The use of pack colour or other elements of pack design to influence smokers' strength impressions thus constitutes a significant public health concern.

This study has been restricted to a single brand family. We do not know with any certainty what mechanisms may be used to differentiate variants in other brand families. However, the findings of the present study show there are good reasons why the FCTC needs to integrate its work relating to Articles 9, 10 (product regulation) with that relating to Article 11 (packaging and labelling) to incorporate assessment of the physical characteristics and performance of cigarettes into its considerations of misleading product promotion. Product modification is one of the four main means of marketing products.28 Modifying the taste or other features that affect the taste experiences of smokers potentially misleads consumers to perceive certain cigarettes are less harmful. For products as harmful as cigarettes, there is no valid justification for any marketing tool that has the potential to mislead consumers into making inappropriate health attributions.

Recent research3 has demonstrated that mandating removal of the terms Light and Mild from cigarette packs has not eliminated smokers' misconceptions that some cigarettes are less harmful than others. The replacement of Light and Mild descriptors with synonyms, such as ‘smooth’ and ‘fine’, was offered as one credible explanation for this persisting belief. The findings of the present study suggest that colour-coding of brand variants may be another effective means of implying lower strength. If the intent of regulators is to prohibit misleading promotion of tobacco products, it will be necessary for them to control visual features of packs, such as colour, along with verbal features, such as brand descriptors. Complete standardisation of packs would make some current forms of differentiation impossible.

Smokers continue to be misled that some cigarettes may be less hazardous than others by colours, imagery, and product features. While we need to develop a better understanding of how perceptions interact with physical features of products to shape perceptions, some regulatory approaches have been proposed. Potential responses include mandating standardised, plain packaging of tobacco products, requirements for comprehensive disclosure of how all brands are engineered and prohibition of technologies, such as filter ventilation, which provide the tobacco industry with the ability to produce ‘mildness’, independently of any real changes in smokers' actual intakes of toxic substances. For products as harmful as cigarettes, we believe the precautionary principle should be adopted. Where there is evidence for any feature of cigarettes affecting smokers' perceptions related to harm that is not validly related to risk, regulators should consider restricting its use.

What this paper adds

  • Previous research has shown that cigarettes labelled ‘Light’ and ‘Mild’ generally employ design features that facilitate compensatory smoking, while encouraging belief that they are less harmful.

  • This study shows that packaging design (colours and descriptors) can be used to market products that could potentially be perceived as lighter/milder, even though this is not reflected in lower machine generated yields of tar and nicotine. It reinforces the case for more comprehensive controls over tobacco marketing.

References

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Footnotes

  • Funding Roswell Park Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center (P50 CA111236) and the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (450110). None of the sponsors had any role in the design and conduct of the study; the collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; or the preparation, review, and approval of the manuscript.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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