WASHINGTON — The nation's largest tobacco company knew as early as the 1970s that smokers of "light" cigarettes took larger puffs that delivered greater amounts of tar, according to a newly released memo.
The 1975 Philip Morris USA correspondence was released by the Senate Commerce Committee in advance of a hearing today examining the rating system that allows tobacco companies to market cigarettes as regular, light or ultra-light.
The rating system leads smokers to mistakenly believe that cigarettes with less tar and nicotine are healthier, according to a memo produced by Democratic congressional staffers.
The Federal Trade Commission allows companies to make statements about tar and nicotine levels as long as they're based on a standardized system. That system uses a machine that smokes cigarettes from different brands the same way.
People don't smoke the same way, however. Some inhale smoke more deeply. Others hold their fingers over the cigarette's vent holes, which increases smoke intake. Research has shown that smokers of light cigarettes take longer, deeper puffs and smoke more often to compensate for the lower level of nicotine.
"In a lot of ways switching to light cigarettes can be more deadly," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.). Lautenberg, a member of the committee, sponsored legislation last year that would prohibit manufacturers from using descriptions such as "light" or "low tar" on package labels or in advertising. He hopes the hearing generates more support for banning such labels.
Among the documents to be reviewed is the one from Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris, which said that larger puffs taken by smokers of light cigarettes "increased the delivery of the cigarette's particulate matter," which consists mostly of tar.
Philip Morris, part of New York-based Altria Group Inc., acknowledges on its website that smokers should not assume that light or ultra-light cigarettes are safer than full-flavor brands.
Despite the warnings, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says tobacco companies aggressively market light cigarettes to smokers concerned about their health.
The National Cancer Institute for several years has called for a change in the way that cigarettes are labeled. In 2001, it said people most concerned about smoking risks were most likely to use brands labeled as light or ultra-light.
"Choosing lower-yield cigarettes is not likely to reduce tar intake and resulting disease risks. Furthermore, marketing and promotion of reduced yield products may delay genuine attempts to quit," the institute said. "There is no evidence that switching to light or ultra-light cigarettes actually assists smokers in quitting."