Smoking Robot Doesn't Register Nicotine's Effect

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Officials from the Federal Trade Commission tell Congress that the machines used to measure chemicals in cigarettes don't "smoke" the way humans do, and thus don't accurately reflect the chemicals smokers inhale.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Smokers are being misled by the government's system of measuring tar and nicotine in cigarettes. That was the testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday as lawmakers once again turned their attention to tobacco companies.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: There were no cigarette executives on hand to deny that smoking is harmful, as in the famous congressional tobacco hearings of the 1990s. The star of this Senate Commerce Committee hearing was the Federal Trade Commission's smoking robot. Senators watched a video of an FTC scientist inserting cigarettes into blue and white cylinders; then a robotic arm moved a lighter down the road to fire them up.

(Soundbite of robot)

ELLIOTT: The machine has been used since the 1960s, when tobacco companies started making light and mild brands in response to growing health concerns. But Federal Trade Commissioner William Kovacic testified that for some time the agency has known the robot doesn't accurately reflect what people inhale when they puff on a cigarette.

Mr. WILLIAM KOVACIC (Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission): The current ratings tend to be relatively poor indicators of tar and nicotine exposure. Among other reasons, smokers of lower-rated cigarettes tend to take bigger, deeper or more frequent puffs, or otherwise alter their smoking behavior to obtain the dosage of nicotine they need.

ELLIOTT: Cigarette design has changed over time, but the machine hasn't since the '60s - a fact that baffled Alaska Republican Ted Stevens.

Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): That even predates my presence in the Congress. That's pretty old.

ELLIOTT: Cathy Backinger with the National Cancer Institute testified that tobacco company documents show cigarette makers have long known that smokers get just as much, if not more, tar and nicotine from light brands, but still use the FTC ratings to market their products. She said such brands now represent an 83 percent market share of cigarette sales.

Dr. CATHY BACKINGER (National Cancer Institute): Smokers erroneously saw these products as viable alternatives to quitting, and as a result many more smokers continue to smoke who might otherwise have quit.

ELLIOTT: The hearing was chaired by New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, a longtime anti-smoking activist who crafted the laws banning smoking on airplanes in the 1980s. Last year, he introduced the Truth in Labeling Act, which would ban terms like light or ultralight to market cigarettes. Yesterday, he said Congress has another urgent tobacco issue to tackle with the FTC smoking machine.

Senator FRANK LAUTENBERG (Democrat, New Jersey): The FTC should not allow this rating system to continue if it cannot stand behind it. And big tobacco should not be able to hide behind the FTC method to justify the claim that light and low-tar cigarettes are healthier.

ELLIOTT: But cigarette makers say they don't market light brands as any safer than regular full-flavor cigarettes.

Bill Phelps is a spokesman for Philip Morris USA.

Mr. BILL PHELPS (Spokesman, Philip Morris USA): Smokers should not assume that brand descriptors such as light or ultralight indicate the actual amount of tar and nicotine that's inhaled from a particular cigarette.

ELLIOTT: Philip Morris has petitioned the FTC to give smokers better information, and is lobbying for legislation in Congress that would shift the regulatory burden to the Food and Drug Administration.

There's another change afoot when it comes to tobacco policy in the Democratic-controlled Congress. Senate leaders decided last week to ban the sale of cigarettes at all the Senate-side convenience stores on Capitol Hill.

Lautenberg said it was about time. Here we are preaching the gospel, he said, and downstairs they're selling the tools for addiction.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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