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Tobacco industry response to a ban on lights descriptors on cigarette packaging and population outcomes
  1. Hillel R Alpert1,
  2. Daniel Carpenter2,
  3. Gregory N Connolly3
  1. 1 School of Law, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2 Department of Government, Center for Government and International Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  3. 3 School of Health Sciences and School of Law, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Hillel R Alpert, Northeastern University School of Law, Cushing Hall, 360 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA; hillel{at}


Objective The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and its Guidelines recommend nations ban the use of misleading terms, such as ’light' and ’mild' on tobacco product advertising, packaging and labelling. Many nations, including the USA, have implemented such bans and some have introduced or passed legislation requiring plain packaging on tobacco products. We previously reported that manufacturers in the USA responded by replacing lights terms with colour terms and related colour-coding of packages. This study examines population outcomes and public health impact of the US ban.

Methods We examined available data regarding a) per cent filter ventilation strata used to designate lights subbrand categories; b) market share per tar yield; c) initiation and use of cigarettes by lights categories and d) overall cigarette consumption to identify changes from before to after the ban. We used interrupted time series multivariable logistic regression and joinpoint regression models to test for changes in rates and temporal trends associated with the ban.

Results The per cent filter ventilation strata used to designate lights subbrand categories were maintained in the colour named subbrands. No change was observed following the ban in lights market share, relative prevalence of lights versus non-lights smoking or relative smoking initiation on lights versus non-lights among all ages or among youth in particular. The rate of decline in per capita cigarette consumption slowed by 37% from the period 2007-2010 to 2010-2014.

Conclusions This study strongly suggests that manufacturers' circumvention prevented the lights descriptor ban from succeeding as intended, most likely perpetuating the misleading consumer perceptions about relative risks, while failing to increase smoking cessation and reduce initiation. Laws requiring generic (plain) and elimination of subbrand descriptors should prevent evasion of legislation banning the use of specific terms through marketing, regulatory and legal challenges.

  • packaging and labelling
  • public policy
  • surveillance and monitoring
  • tobacco industry
  • advertising and promotion

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  • Contributors HRA and GNC planned the study, HRA conducted the analyses and interpreted the findings of the study, and prepared and submitted the manuscript. GNC interpreted the findings of the study and contributed to the writing of the manuscript. DC contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

  • Funding This work was supported by National Institutes of Health grant number R21-DA036485-01 and grant number 5R01 CA087477-14.

  • Competing interests None declared.

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