NEW YORK, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- If somebody invented a cigarette that had no nicotine, no tar, no carbon monoxide, no cancer-causing agents, and a special filter that created no second-hand smoke, the government would ban it. How do I know this? Because every time one of the Big Four tobacco companies develops a safer or cleaner cigarette of any kind, the feds tell them, "You can't claim it's safe and, when you advertise it, we're going to make you say it's NOT safe."
As a result, most people think all cigarettes are more or less the same. Anti-smoking groups even think that all cigarette packaging should be the same, so that there are no logos, drawings or graphics on the package, just the name of the brand on a tombstone. (I'm not making this up.)
Of course, what happens when people think all cigarettes are alike is that they buy strictly according to price. So what do they buy? Generic brands that are up to 25 times deadlier than brands that have worked for decades to lower tar and nicotine.
Why would the government maintain for 40 years the fiction that all cigarettes are alike? Especially when ignorance like this costs lives. By this time we could have had giant numbers on the side of each cigarette pack that describes that brand's relative deadliness. It wouldn't be that hard to do. You would have, say, a 100-point scale that averaged together levels of tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, how tightly the tobacco is packed, the burn rate, the effectiveness of the filter, and what we know about the mortality rate from lung cancer and heart disease, and this number -- 100 for "deadly as hell," and 0 for "as healthy as a cigarette can reasonably be" -- would be printed on the side of the pack.
The government refuses to do this, even though they're so concerned about cholesterol that they require products with micrograms of fat to record that fact on the packaging in big black numerals. The federal government can't even decide what kind of product tobacco is, but if it's a drug, then the health information could be provided by the FDA. If it's not a drug, the FTC could do the same job. Normally, if a product is considered "hazardous," the government puts all kinds of information on its labeling. But we live in a country where you have more information about what's in a clump of organic arugula than in a pack of Parliament Light.
I'm not normally a conspiracy theorist, but the government looks absolutely guilty on this issue, and the blame cuts across Republican and Democratic administrations alike ranging over four decades. You have to go back to the Eisenhower years to find a president who was basically straight with the consumer. After Eisenhower's surgeon general issued the first announcement about smoking being linked to cancer in 1956, the tobacco companies responded almost immediately with changes in their products, new brands, and various technological advances that reduced nicotine and other impurities. Eisenhower encouraged the "Great Tar Derby," as it was called, which resulted in the emergence of brands like Kent and Marlboro, led to the death of Pall Mall, made the filter a permanent fixture on cigarettes, and made the cigarette safer all the way around.
In fact, between 1957 and 1960, tar consumption declined by a third even as cigarettes were growing in popularity, mainly because of an all-out advertising blitz, with each tobacco company touting its new, safer, less toxic cigarette. The competition was driving tar and nicotine levels lower and lower.
(I wonder whatever happened to Duke cigarettes, which won the "Great Tar Derby" as the safest cigarette. My guess: they tasted like turpentine.)
And then all of a sudden, for reasons no one quite understood, the Federal Trade Commission banned tar and nicotine advertising in 1960. And that's pretty much the way things have stayed ever since. The one thing the cigarette companies aren't allowed to advertise is safety --the very thing most consumers are most interested in knowing about.
Thanks to pressure from the American Cancer Society, the FTC did start publishing tar and nicotine levels in 1967, but you have to be a chemist to figure out what they all mean. (Marlboro alone, for example, has 18 different sub-brands -- Marlboro Gold, Marlboro Red, Marlboro Light, Marlboro Ultra-Light, etc. -- and each has a different tar level, nicotine level, and carbon monoxide level.)
In my opinion, the tar and carbon monoxide are more important than the nicotine, but why should I be playing amateur chemist when an unbiased government agency could just print it out for me the way they do on every food product in the grocery store?
At any rate, cigarettes got safer, not because of the government, but in spite of it. Consumer demand for cigarettes that deliver taste without taking years off your life led to smokers sort of figuring it out by osmosis. For example, according to the Surgeon General, in 1993 cigarette consumption per capita was about the same level it was 50 years before -- around 2,800 cigarettes, down from the peak of 4,000 in the 1960s. But in 1943, the average tar level in cigarettes was 46.1 milligrams. By 1993, it was 12 milligrams, so the potential risk to the smoker's health had declined 75 percent overall.
And yet the government continued to treat all cigarettes alike, and to say that no cigarette was safer than another. In fact, if the FTC thinks a cigarette ad is even implying that it's safer than other cigarettes, that company will face a formal complaint and possible sanctions. The original impetus for this policy was to create "a smoke-free America" by the year 2000, but none of the federal agencies' ad campaigns had any appreciable effect on what seems, in retrospect, like a pipe dream, if you'll pardon the pun. (Twenty-three percent of the populace still smokes.)
Look at the ludicrous results. If you take the top ten brands in America, the three at the top of the list in terms of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide are Newport, Camel and Salem. Are we to think of these as dangerous cigarettes? According to the government, not really. They are neither more nor less dangerous than the brands that rank at the bottom of the toxic list: Virginia Slims, Doral, GPC, and SOME types of Marlboros.
Shouldn't it be stated somewhere on the product that these are less toxic? Is it out of the question to make the rankings clear enough so that a normal uneducated person can form the conclusion: "A Virginia Slim is much safer than a Camel."
But then we have the safest cigarette ever manufactured: the Carlton. At 1 milligram tar and 0.1 milligram nicotine, you would think its designers would be acclaimed as some of the greatest innovators since the guy who figured out how to decaffeinate coffee. Think again. They're required to put the following disclaimer in all their ads: "It is not our intention to suggest that a 1 mg 'tar' cigarette is any safer than other cigarettes."
Of COURSE it's safer! Why would you spend the money to process it down to that level unless it was a cigarette designed to alleviate health concerns?
Players and Commander, two brands bought by the carloads in Wal-Marts because they're cheap, have tar levels of 23 and 22, respectively. So a cigarette that's 23 times safer is not allowed to say, "By the way, the odds are you'll live longer smoking this one than that one."
If package labeling is too complex, then why not just test all cigarettes for safety and publish the results on the Internet? But it needs to be done in such a way that there's one overall rating number that takes into account ALL health factors.
This would be the quickest and most efficient way to bring down the lung cancer and heart disease rate from smoking, because the worse the "death number," the more likely people would stay away from the brand, and the more likely the brand would be to reduce toxicity.
Instead, legislatures fritter away their time on issues like "additive disclosure." Additives are chemicals used in cigarettes for two reasons -- to enhance the flavor, or to slow down the burn rate. For some reason, they're considered sinister, as though the quest for a smoother smoke is evil.
Several state legislatures passed laws requiring cigarette companies to disclose what additives they use. Since Winston didn't use any additives, they immediately launched an ad campaign for "additive-free" cigarettes. The campaign was squelched by the government and anti-smoking groups as misleading. Why?
It was only misleading because the original premise was misleading. It's not additives that make Winstons dangerous. Winston has a tar level of 16 and a nicotine level of 1.2 -- not the worst, but not the best either -- and wouldn't be less risky with or without additives.
W. Kip Viscusi, the Harvard law and economics professor to whom I'm indebted for much of the data in this article, summed it up this way: "In terms of the overall risk, concern over additives is akin to asking whether the car that ran you over also had lead paint on it."
Cigarette companies are forbidden from making health claims in any of their advertising, so that the competition that led to the advances of 1957 to 1960 impossible today, but what's harder to figure out is why the government actively discourages entirely new brands of cigarettes that are specifically designed to address health concerns.
Philip Morris, for example, blew through $450 million developing a process that can strip cigarettes of nicotine, in the same way that coffee beans are stripped of caffeine. But when they introduced the nicotine-free brands in 1991 -- Next, Merit-Free, Benson & Hedges de-nic -- the company was attacked by anti-smoking fanatics and government agencies alike as misleading.
How could it possibly be misleading? The cigarette either has nicotine or it doesn't. They took it out! They eliminated Public Health Enemy No. 1 of the past half century.
Then there was the Premier, later renamed the Eclipse. This was not a cigarette at all really, although it looked like a cigarette and was used like a cigarette. Most of the carcinogenic risks from cigarettes derive not from the tobacco but from the smoke. The Premiere didn't burn the tobacco. Instead, you lit a carbon tip that heated a capsule of porous beads coated with tobacco extract.
Then there was the Accord, the cigarette introduced in 1997 that eliminated second-hand smoke because it doesn't smoke between puffs.
Then there was the new type of tobacco developed by Brown & Williamson that contains much lower nitrosamines.
All dismissed. All ridiculed. All portrayed, in the words of the New York Times, as Big Tobacco going to ridiculous lengths "to make a dangerous addiction more socially acceptable."
And now the federal government is suing all the tobacco companies. One of their claims: the industry conspired to keep safer, less addictive cigarettes off the market.
This would be laughable for its hypocrisy were it not so deadly. For 42 years the government refuses to test cigarettes, label cigarettes, or encourage safer ones, and then they sue the industry they've frustrated at every turn. "The current policy approach of failing to promote safer cigarettes," says Professor Viscusi, "in effect is using death as the principal deterrent to reduce smoking rates."
As the only person in America who hasn't participated in a class action suit yet, I'm ready to get my feet wet. Can we sue the FTC and FDA for conspiring to suppress safety innovations? Let's get both suits going at the same time. I think the evidence this time is on the side of Big Tobacco.
(John Bloom writes several columns for UPI. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site: joebobbriggs.com.
Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)