Key Issues

in Tobacco Industry

Misleading cigarette marketing: the ‘light’ and ‘mild’ deception

In 1976, Canadian tobacco companies began introducing so-called ‘light’ or ‘mild’ brands. Heavy advertising attracted consumers with promises of full “taste” or “satisfaction” with “low tar”. The industry’s marketing intent was clear: these new brands were pitched at smokers who were worried about the damage cigarettes were doing to their health, but who were too addicted to quit. In 1984, Bob Bexon (now Imperial Tobacco’s CEO) explained the situation to an internal industry conference as follows:

It is useful to consider lights more as a third alternative to quitting and cutting down — a branded hybrid of smokers’ unsucessful attempts to modify their own habit on their own.

In less than a decade, these brands captured 40% of the Canadian market, and now account for more than half of all cigarettes sold in this country.

Unfortunately, as the public health community discovered in the 1980s and 1990s, “light” and “mild” cigarettes are not the panacea some consumers believe:

  1. By providing false security to some smokers who might otherwise have succeeded in quitting, they have clearly slowed the decline in smoking rates and hence contributed to the 45,000 annual tobacco death toll in Canada.
  2. Smokers who switch from ‘regular’ to ‘light’ cigarettes often do not reduce their exposure to tar, because of a problem called compensation. Even for individual smokers who would not have succeeded in quitting anyway, there is little evidence of any decreased risk from switching cigarette brands. (See short bibliography on health impact of switching to ‘lower-tar’ cigarettes.)

Consumers expect the term “light” to mean something: by law, “light” beer must be below a certain percentage in alcohol, and “light” margarine must have appreciably fewer calories. In the case of cigarettes, however, the term “light” is completely unregulated. Companies use the term as they see fit to refer loosely to how much ‘tar’ a machine is exposed to when it smokes the cigarette. Unfortunately, human beings do not smoke like machines, and smokers are routinely exposed to far more ‘tar’ than machine smokers — particularly when they are smoking light cigarettes.

Because of all of these concerns, Brazil (see Text of Brazilian regulation [Portuguese]) and the European Union (see Press releaseText of directive) have moved to ban the descriptors “light” and “mild” from all tobacco products. A recently released World Health Organization report recommends all countries take the same step. (See: Advancing Knowledge on Regulating Tobacco Products, p. 96.)

The documents below, many of them from previously secret tobacco industry archives, explain in more detail why “light” and “mild” are highly misleading descriptors when used on cigarettes — descriptors that contribute to thousands of deaths every year.


Document & Source  Description Key quotes
Background documents
Background: Light and Mild Cigarettes

From: Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada

Information-packed fact sheet on “light” and “mild”
  1. “In Canada, 57% of women and 53% of men smoke low-yield cigarettes.”
  2. “Recently revealed ingredient lists for cigarettes show that light and regular cigarettes of the same brand family have virtually identical ingredients.”
  3. “Less than 10% of US smokers knew that one light cigarette could give the same amount of tar as one regular cigarette.” 
Compensation: What is it, and when did the tobacco industry know about it?

From: Non-Smokers’ Rights Association.

Brief overview of why smokers of ‘light’ cigarettes get much more than they bargain for — and of just how soon the industry realized it.
  1. “Recently uncovered tobacco industry documents demonstrate that, unlike governments, tobacco companies knew exactly what was going on even before launching ‘lights’ brands in the mid-1970s.”
Limitations to potential uses for data based on the machine smoking of cigarettes: cigarette smoke contents

From: Academic article, based on research sponsored by Health Canada

Research published in 1986 by Bill Rickert and colleagues showed consumers mistakenly believe switching to ‘light’ cigarettes substantially decreases their exposure to tar.
  1. “Fifty-one per cent of those who responded felt that these numbers represent the most that can be inhaled from a cigarette.”
  2. “…32 per cent of the 441 [subjects] state that in order to reduce the impact of smoking on their health they had switched to a lighter/lower/weaker tar brand.”
Smokers’ Beliefs about ‘Light’ Cigarettes

From: Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada

A compilation of 1999 data from Health Canada’s Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey.
  1. “1.5 million smokers do not believe that ‘light’ cigarettes are as harmful as regular cigarettes.”
  2. “Those who believe ‘light’ cigarettes are less harmful are more likely to smoke them.”
Overview of the ‘lights’ issue
From: Report to Health Canada by Bill Howard, 2000, obtained under Access to Information by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada
A comprehensive literature review on the issue, compiled by a former official from the New Brunswick Department of Health.
  1. “Researchers asked smokers about the likelihood of their quitting if they found out that ‘light’ cigarettes could produce just as much tar as regular cigarettes. Forty-one percent said they would be likely to stop: 7% were ‘very likely’ and 34%, ‘somewhat likely’.”
Industry documents (chronological order)
Advertisement for Player’s Light, 1976

From: Guildford depository

A typical “best of both worlds” ad from the early days of “light” cigarettes
  1. “All the experience of Player’s in a milder cigarette.”
Response of the market and of Imperial Tobacco to the smoking and health environment, 1978 [?]

From: Imperial Tobacco document made public during Canadian court proceedings around the Tobacco Products Control Act (TPCA).

A think piece about the marketing opportunities offered by “light” cigarettes
  1. “We have evidence of virtually no quitting among smokers of these brands, and there are indications that the advent of ultra low tar cigarettes has actually retained some potential smokers in the cigarette market by offering them a viable alternative.” (p.15102)
“Banding” and “Numbers”, 1981

From: BAT document, from Guildford depository

This strategy document from BAT headquarters encourages companies to get governments to define the terms “middle tar,” “low tar”, “super low tar”, etc.

This “banding” can then be turned to marketing advantage.

Obstacles/Enemies of a swing to low tar, 1982

From: Guildford depository

British-American Tobacco, the parent company of Imperial Tobacco Ltd. of Canada, strategizes on the shift to ‘lights.’
  1. “It is possible that there are smokers who may take the reduction of tar to the ultimate limit. That is to say, quit smoking. If this is so quitting is a very serious obstacle to the marketing of low tar brands since we would be destroying our own market.
    On the other hand, it seems more likely that, if people are reducing their tar intake because of concerns for health, low tar brands are helping to maintain the market.”
Project Eli, Spring, 1982

From: TPCA proceedings

In the early 1980s, marketing consultants working for Imperial Tobacco conducted extensive focus groups with smokers of “light” cigarettes.
  1. “The leading edge of recent trends by smokers with health anxieties to trade down to lower T&N brands, are those who have adopted brands in the 5 and under T&N range, as an alternative to quitting altogether. In the spring of ’82 this represented around 8% of cigarette smokers.” (p. 15114)
  2. Among smokers of ‘low-tar cigarettes’, the percentage who feel:“A lot less concerned about their health 17%

    Somewhat less concerned about their health 46%”
    (p. 15128)

Project Eli: Focus Groups — Final Report, 1982

From: TPCA proceedings

Further research on the meaning of “light” brands, and strategic conclusions for Imperial Tobacco’s marketing efforts.
  1. “LTN’s [low tar and nicotine cigarettes] allow consumers to continue to smoke under social duress. As a category, low-tar brands are seen as a means to yield to health consideration, social pressures and personal guilt feelings.” (p. 15045) 
  2. “The desire to quit smoking altogether and the rationalization offered by many consumers that their going down in tar and nicotine brings them closer to the inevitable step of giving up smoking may actually increase the market considerably.” (p. 15070-71)
Paper 6: New Brand Development, Post-Lights, 1984

From: Guildford depository

Bob Bexon, now the CEO of Imperial Tobacco, presented this stunningly cynical paper at BAT’s 1984 Smoking Behaviour & Marketing Conference.
  1. “Fortunately for the tobacco industry, neiter of these two approaches [i.e. quitting or cutting down] proved very successful for smokers. In 1976, although 41% had tried to quit and 26% were ready to give it another go, the actualrate of qutting ‘within the past 6 months’ was fairly stable at a little less than 2%. Fewer than this made it to a year.” (pp. 400459912-13)
  2. “It is useful to consider lights more as a third alternative to quitting and cutting down – a branded hybrid of smokers’ unsuccessful attempts to modify their habit on their own.” (p. 400459922)
Player’s 1988 — Performance Highlights versus Specific Measures
From: TPCA proceedings 
An update on consumer perceptions of different brands in the Player’s brand family.
  1. “Player’s Extra Light continues to be positioned as a milder, therefore healthier, version of Player’s Light. It remains a health oriented alternative for interested Player’s smokers.” (p. 39216)
The Canadian Tobacco Market at a Glance, 1989
From: TPCA proceedings
Industry tracking data on awareness of health risks, intent to quit, rates of successful quitting and shift to “light” or “mild” brands.” Intend to quit (1989): 49%

Actual quitting (1989): 1.8%

Letter from Don Brown (CEO of Imperial Tobacco) to Ulrich Herter (BAT Managing Director, Tobacco), 1993
From: Guildford depository
An amusing letter in which Imperial Tobacco explains to headquarters that terms such as “light” are essentially meaningless in Canada.
  1. “…we have learnt that tar level isn’t the only determinant of [perceived] strength. Other main elements would be the qualifier (strong, medium, light), packaging and other elements that contribute to the trademark image. A good illustration of this is Player’s Medium vesus Player’s Light; the tar level of these two brands is practically identical (14 vs. 13) – yet in image terms they are perceived to be signficantly different on strength.” (p. 2022200798)
CEC Key Issue Paper, 1994

From: Guildford depository

This briefing paper comes from the very top of the BAT corporate hierarchy, and describes how the multinational plans to gain market share among “young adult [urban] smokers” (YAS or YAUS — an industry code word for teens).
  1. “Lights is a critical element within the BAT YAUS strategy with such smokers increasingly switching to light brands as one element in an overall lights lifestyle which covers many other product categories (beer, food etc.). In key markets, we estimate that the proportion of YAUS Lights smokers will double from 27% to over 50% by 2010, and that the global lights takeup will accelerate in all markets.”
  2. “The YAUS segment is a key source of new business for all brands but particularly IFBs [International Focus Brands] and Lights. By 2010, an estimated 50% of YAUS smokers will be lights consumers, whereas a similar proportion will smoke IFBs.”

Note: BAT may already have reached its objective in Canada. Recent polling data for Health Canada indicates almost as many youth smokers smoke “lights” brands as “regular” brands.

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