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"Light" Cigarettes May Still Contain High Nicotine Levels

Behind the Smoke Screen: How Tobacco Companies Increased Nicotine Levels

BOSTON, MA -- September 15, 2006 -- Contrary to what the tobacco companies would have you believe, the amount of nicotine that can be inhaled from cigarettes has been increasing. This information comes to us from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH), which did a detailed study based on newer, modern testing procedures as well as on information reported by the cigarette companies under a state law. The MDPH found:

  • From 1998 through 2004, the total amount of nicotine delivered to a smoker per cigarette increased by 9.8%.
  • The nicotine increase extended to cigarettes from all major manufacturers, including Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds. The brands included Basic, Camel, Doral, Kool, Marlboro and Newport.
  • Ninety-three percent of the cigarettes tested in 2004 were in the high range for the amount of nicotine delivered under typical smoking conditions. This compares with 84% in 1998.

"These findings are significant," commented MDPH Commissioner Paul Cote Jr. (Press Release, August 29, 2006). "This is the first release of information on nicotine yield in more than six years nationally. We want health care providers to know that smokers are getting more nicotine than in the past and may need additional help in trying to quit."

Should You Light Up a "Low-Tar" Cigarette?

Some smokers try "light," "ultra-light," or "low-tar" cigarettes, hoping that they will reduce their nicotine intake and curb their tobacco addictions. However, these types of cigarettes may also contain high levels of nicotine or be smoked in a way that enhances nicotine delivery. The study found that:

  • One hundred sixty-six cigarette brands out of 179 tested in 2004 were in the high range for delivery of nicotine to the smoker. This figure included 59 brands that the manufacturers labeled as "light" cigarettes, 12 brands labeled as "mild" or "medium" and 14 labeled "ultra-light."
  • For all brands tested, there were no major differences in the total nicotine content. Whether the manufacturer labeled the cigarette as "light" or "full flavor " had little bearing on this figure.

In cases where there was some lower total nicotine content in the cigarette, the filter was generally made to be less effective, allowing a greater amount of nicotine to be inhaled.

Tobacco Companies Engaged in Racketeering, District Court Says

The MDPH report comes one month after U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that major tobacco manufacturers had engaged in racketeering and attempted to hide the dangers of smoking (US v. Philip Morris et al., Case No. 992496, August 17, 2006). The 1,742-page opinion traces the history of tobacco company deception over 40 years. It orders the companies to stop using misleading terms such as "light," "low-tar" and "ultra-light." They must also issue corrective information explaining the harm and addiction caused by smoking, the dangers of secondhand smoke, and the lack of benefit from smoking "light" or "low-tar" cigarettes.

The tobacco companies are appealing the case, and have requested permission to use terms such as "light" in their international businesses. Not surprisingly, Philip Morris is also challenging the MDPH study, claiming that the results only show that "nicotine levels fluctuate in the normal process of growing tobacco" (Boston Globe, September 12, 2006).

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