Current regulations have failed to remove misleading information from cigarette packaging, revealing that a large majority of consumers believe cigarettes are less hazardous because of the clever use of words on the packaging such as "silver" or "smooth," in addition to using lower numbers in the brand name and misleading pictures of filters. This, according to a recent study.
In the study of 603 adults published in the Journal of Public Health, Canadian researchers called for the list of words banned from cigarette packaging to be expanded beyond the current prohibition of "light," "mild" and "low-tar" and suggest that other pack design elements may need to be eliminated to prevent consumers erroneously believing that one brand is less harmful than another.
The study’s leader, David Hammond, a professor of health studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada stated "Research has already shown that using words such as ‘light,’ ‘mild’ and ‘low tar’ on cigarette packaging misleads consumers into thinking that one brand carries a lower health risk than another and that’s why those words have been outlawed in more than 50 countries, but there has been virtually no independent research on these other packaging tactics to support broader regulation. Our study found that commonly-used words not covered by the bans, as well as other packaging design elements such as color, the use of numbers and references to filters, were just as misleading, which means there’s a loophole that needs to be closed."
Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that it kills more than 5 million people a year.
The researchers studied the perceptions of 312 smokers and 291 non-smokers. The subjects were shown nine pairs of fictitious cigarette packet replicas incorporating words and design elements commonly used by leading international brands. Each pair differed in only a single design aspect – either a word such as "silver" versus "full-flavor" or "smooth" versus "regular" or "mild" versus "regular" or "light" versus "ultra-light"; a number incorporated into the brand name, such as 6 versus 10; a color such as light blue versus darker blue or white versus grey and the presence of an illustration of a filter with the words "charcoal filter" written above it. All the packets included standard health warnings and could be picked up and handled by the study participants.
The results showed a total of 80% believed the package labeled "smooth" would be less hazardous than the one labeled “regular”. Similarly, 73% judged the brand labeled "silver" as less hazardous than the one labeled "full-flavor" and 84% thought the pack with "6" in the brand name carried less health risk than the one with "10" in it. Also, 79% said the lighter blue pack would have a lower health risk than the darker blue one and 76% said the one depicting a charcoal filter would not be as bad for their health as the one without such an illustration.
"The truth is that all cigarettes are equally hazardous, regardless of the filter type, what color the pack is or what words appear on it," Hammond said. "These tactics are giving consumers a false sense of reassurance that simply does not exist."
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