Ruling Sounds Death Knell for 'Light' Cigarette

A judge says cigarette labels such as "light," "ultra light" or "low tar" will no longer be permitted. Alan Blum of the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society at the University of Alabama, offers a brief history of the light cigarette.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

One of the main ways smokers will notice the impact of Judge Kessler's ruling will be the end of cigarettes labeled light, low tar or mild. No more Camel Lights. No more Marlboro Ultra Lights. No more Kool Milds. This trend dates back to the 1950s, when RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company had success in selling the new filtered Winston cigarette. Here's how they were marketed in the 1960s.

(Soundbite of Winston cigarette ad)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Fred Flinstone) (Unintelligible) how's about taking a nap?

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Barney Rubble) I got a better idea. Let's take a Winston break.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Fred Flinstone) That's it! Winston is the one filter cigarette that delivers flavor 20 times a pack. Winston's got that filtered blend.

Unidentified Man #2: (As Barney Rubble) Yeah, Fred.

ELLIOTT: Fred Flintstone and his filters. Then came low tar and low nicotine smokes. And by the 1970s, popular brands like Marlboro and Camel had expanded to include lights. They soared in popularity and by the year 2000 nearly 90 percent of all cigarettes sold were labeled light or ultra light.

To learn more about the story behind light cigarettes we called Alan Blume, director of the University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society.

Mr. ALAN BLUME (University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society): The whole history of lights, ultra lights, and even the filter and low tar, came about purely as the result of concerns about health.

ELLIOTT: Who was concerned?

Mr. BLUME: The cigarette companies were very concerned in the early 1950s, when the health reports were coming out from England and the United States that smoking caused lung cancer. And the companies were very concerned because sales were beginning to drop. And my theory is that the person who was sitting around wondering what to do to retain sales must have had some oil stains on his finger, because he said why don't we put a filer on it.

One of the brands that had a filter said, so safe, so pure, it's used to filter the air in many hospitals. And that was, of course, the Kent Micronite filter with asbestos. The low tar issue came about in the 1960s. This was a television commercial in the early 1960s.

(Soundbite of cigarette ad)

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): New low tar multi-filter with only 14 milligrams of tar and 1.1 of nicotine, as compared to all U.S. government tested cigarettes, which range from a high of 31 milligrams tar, 2.2 of nicotine.

Mr. BLUME: If you listen to the language, it's all mumbo-jumbo about nicotine and tar and low tar and milligrams. And ironically, these filtered low tar and light cigarettes are far more hazardous than the old, conventional Camels because you have to suck harder and your risk for emphysema and heart disease is far greater.

ELLIOTT: Now, tobacco companies, to be fair, have always said this was not about this making a safer product, but it was about the flavor.

Mr. BLUME: Well, the lighter taste is merely the result of candy flavorings and sugar and so forth.

ELLIOTT: So now that there will be no more cigarettes labeled light, or ultra light or low tar or mild, what do you think the impact is going to be for smokers?

Mr. BLUME: Oh, I think this is all marketing. It's all been a gimmick to create the illusion that you have your own individual brand. If you ever hear how people order cigarettes, it's I'd like a package of Marlboro Lights 100s, crushproof box, menthol, leaded or unleaded. I mean it goes on and on. And all those are very carefully crafted marketing terms. What's going to happen is they'll put a gold star or a blue star that will clue in people to their own personal, private brand.

ELLIOTT: Alan Blum is a professor at the University of Alabama and curator of the exhibition Cartoonists Take Up Smoking at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. BLUME: Thank you, Debbie.

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