In reality, scientific evidence that cigarettes cause cancer was becoming overwhelming. In 1964, the Surgeon General seemed to put an end to any controversy when he released the report of an independent advisory committee that had considered more than 7,000 published articles.
The Surgeon General’s warning had a profound effect on the public, prompting many smokers to quit. But the tobacco companies and their scientists would continue to deny that cigarettes cause cancer for another 35 years.
To discourage smokers from quitting, companies redesigned their cigarettes to seem safer. First, they added filters. Then they introduced “low-tar” cigarettes. Within a few years, these cigarettes dominated the market. Marlboro Lights, which debuted in 1971, became the nation’s best-selling cigarette.
Tobacco companies knew from extensive internal research that smokers were addicted to nicotine and needed a certain amount of it every day to satisfy their habit. Given a “low-tar” cigarette, they would change the way they smoked to get their fix.
With the passage of a new law, the Federal Trade Commission in 1967 began testing all cigarette brands on special smoking machines that measured the amount of tar inhaled. Cigarettes were reformulated, not so much to reduce tar but to fool the machines, according to a National Cancer Institute report. Tiny holes were cut in the cigarette paper to vent tar when a cigarette was smoked by a machine. Those holes, however, didn’t reduce the tar inhaled by smokers.
“If you reduce the amount of nicotine coming through, the person changes a pattern of it. They take bigger puffs, they take deeper puffs, they take longer puffs, they smoke more cigarettes per day to get the amount of nicotine they are seeking to satisfy their addiction,” said Dr. David Burns, a retired medical professor at the University of California, San Diego, who edited some of the Surgeon General’s reports on smoking.
Burns was testifying for the plaintiffs in a recent St. Louis class-action trial.
Also testifying was William Farone, the research director at Philip Morris from 1977 to 1984. He said studies done at the company even before he was hired showed that smokers who switched to light cigarettes would take deeper puffs to get the same amount of nicotine they’d received from regular ones. Farone said other than those tiny holes in the paper, the differences between a Marlboro Red and a Marlboro Light were small.
Public-health scientists would not figure this out for several more years. A study by the American Cancer Society published in 1995 found that the rate of lung cancer deaths among 200,000 smokers actually went up after light cigarettes began dominating sales. Experts believe that the low-burning temperature of a low-tar cigarette and deeper puffs by smokers allow more carcinogens to go deeper into the lungs.
‘Corrective statements’ ordered
The rewards for disputing the scientific consensus are high while the risks are low. The Justice Department’s racketeering lawsuit had sought to have the tobacco industry repay illegal profits of $480 billion. But an appellate court ruled that federal racketeering laws didn’t allow for fines for past behavior.
Judge Kessler’s only power was to order cigarette makers to stop engaging in illegal behavior. Companies appealed her order to quit making claims about low-tar cigarettes, arguing it violated their First Amendment rights. But Kessler’s ruling was upheld.
Nonetheless, Philip Morris hired scientists from the consulting firms Gradient Corp. and Ramboll Environ to testify in lawsuits that so-called low-tar cigarettes are safer than regular ones.
Sharon Eubanks, the former Justice Department attorney who led the lawsuit, believes Philip Morris is violating Kessler’s order. The order forbids public statements declaring that low-tar cigarettes have health benefits, even if such statements come from a Philip Morris consultant.
To enforce the order, the Justice Department would have to file a motion with Kessler. A department spokesman would not comment on the case. Calls to Philip Morris seeking comment were not returned.
After the case wound through appeals, Kessler issued a revised opinion and order in February reiterating that tobacco companies must make the following “corrective statements” on their websites and in advertising:
- Many smokers switch to low-tar and light cigarettes rather than quitting because they think low-tar and light cigarettes are less harmful. They are not.
- “Low tar” and “light” cigarette smokers inhale essentially the same amount of tar and nicotine as they would from regular cigarettes.
- All cigarettes cause cancer, lung disease, heart attacks, and premature death — lights, low tar, ultra lights, and naturals. There is no safe cigarette.
A decade after the original order, and five years after Kessler first issued these statements, tobacco companies are still appealing her ruling. None has printed the statements.
Congress agreed with Kessler’s original findings, and in 2009 passed a law also forbidding the tobacco companies from calling cigarettes “light” or “low-tar” without the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But Philip Morris says research done since Kessler’s 2006 order justifies the company’s claims that such cigarettes are safer than regular ones.