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Shedding ‘light’ on cigarette pack design: colour differences in product perceptions, use and exposure following the US descriptor ban


Introduction Many countries removed misleading descriptors (eg, ‘light,’ ‘mild’) from cigarette packaging because they falsely conveyed messages of reduced risk. It is unclear if relabelled products currently promote misperceptions or differences in product use and toxicant exposure. We compared product perceptions, use and exposure between a US sample of Marlboro Gold (formerly ‘light’) and Red smokers.

Methods 240 non-treatment-seeking adult daily Marlboro smokers (70% male, 71% White, mean cigarettes/day=16.4 (SD=8.3)) completed two laboratory sessions over a 5-day period. During sessions, participants smoked two cigarettes through a topography device to capture their puffing behaviour, provided precigarette and postcigarette carbon monoxide (CO) assessments, and completed risk perception and subjective rating questionnaires. Self-reported cigarettes per day were verified via daily filter collection; urine collected at the end of the period was assayed for nicotine metabolites.

Results Gold (n=49) smokers were more likely than Red (n=191) to incorrectly believe their cigarettes had less nicotine and tar than regular cigarettes (ps<0.001), and rated them as weaker, less harsh, and mild tasting (ps<0.05). Differences between Red and Gold smokers in cigarettes per day and puffing behaviours trended towards significance (ps<0.1). Notably, there were no group differences on CO boost or total nicotine equivalents (ps>0.1).

Conclusions Misperceptions about nicotine and tar exist years after rebranding Marlboro Lights as Marlboro Gold. Biological results support that Gold smokers do not have lower toxicant exposure. The US should consider comprehensive packaging or product design regulations to properly inform smokers of product risks.

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  • packaging and labelling
  • advertising and promotion
  • nicotine
  • public policy
  • smoking topography

Data availability statement

Data are available on reasonable request. Deidentified data and a measures codebook will be made available on request.

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