Will Big Tobacco’s History of Failed “Safer” Products Repeat Itself?

So-called safer tobacco products are just the newest industry tactic to disguise themselves.

Tobacco companies are like chameleons, changing their outward-facing appearance to whatever it needs to be in order to survive. In the 1950s, when scientists first discovered a link between smoking and lung cancer, the tobacco industry realized that the truth about their deadly products could inspire people to quit. And in the eyes of a tobacco executive, that meant one thing: a threat to profits. They had to make it look like they cared about their customers’ health, or risk losing users who might otherwise choose to quit.

Thus began the industry’s ongoing efforts to disguise its true colors. A look back reveals that the “reduced-risk” products the industry started marketing not only weren’t safer, but in some cases, were more harmful.

With major tobacco companies currently throwing significant money and marketing effort behind their new products, now is the time to ask: Is history simply repeating itself with the industry’s latest round of new “safer” tobacco products?

A look back at failed “safer” tobacco products

The 1950s through the 1970s saw the emergence of new products marketed as alternatives to quitting, including filtered, low-tar, “light” and “mild” cigarettes. STOP’s Addiction at Any Cost: Philip Morris International Uncovered report revealed, however, that while these products were advertised to seem lower-risk, the science proved otherwise. Filtered cigarettes made it easier for users to take bigger, deeper puffs, and the fibers contained inside the filters could be inhaled into the lungs. Researchers also began to see a behavior called compensatory smoking from those using low-tar or “light” cigarettes, where smokers took more and deeper puffs or smoked more cigarettes in a given day to maintain their nicotine intake.

But smokers’ health wasn’t Big Tobacco’s main concern. A 1977 marketing document from British American Tobacco (BAT), maker of brands including Lucky Strike, Rothmans and Camel, stated: “All work in this area should be directed towards providing consumer reassurance about cigarettes and the smoking habit. This can be provided in different ways, e.g. by claiming low deliveries, and by the perception of ‘mildness.’”

From the 1970s through the 2000s, portioned smokeless tobacco and snus became the new darlings of Big Tobacco’s “reduced-risk” promotion efforts. STOP researchers have pointed out that while industry scientists concluded that smokeless tobacco was “probably” less hazardous (though still contained at least 28 cancer-causing chemicals), creating an alternative to quitting tobacco altogether and safeguarding profits among increasing smoke-free policies were key motivators. The industry didn’t stop at marketing to smokers who would have otherwise quit; analysis suggests young people and nonsmokers were also key targets.

An internal BAT document from 1981 explained that, from a marketing perspective, smokeless tobacco was, “…a good opportunity because of the increasing restrictions on public smoking time and space.” The document went on to state the simple truth: “We have no wish to aid or hasten any decline in cigarette smoking. … Smokeless tobacco products might well provide an acceptable alternative to those consumers who would otherwise quit, and to those who could use smokeless at times when they cannot smoke.”

It was never about genuine harm reduction—it was also about profit. Now, signs point to more of the same.

Today, we see large tobacco companies shifting their public narrative to parrot the anti-smoking messaging of the public health community (see Philip Morris International’s [PMI] unconvincing “Year of Unsmoke” campaign and BAT’s “A Better Tomorrow” rebranding). Big Tobacco is pushing new, addictive products such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products (HTPs) as lower-risk alternatives to smoking, but more independent studies are needed to determine the short- and long-term health risks users may face. If the past 70 years are any indication, these efforts are likely just an attempt to camouflage the fact that these companies continue to make and sell hundreds of billions of cigarettes every year, and are still working to grow cigarette sales where they can.

STOP researchers examined the markets in which IQOS, PMI’s HTP brand, had launched, and found that IQOS has been targeted to markets where cigarette sales were already falling—not where smoking rates were rising and where a supposedly reduced-risk product would have a greater impact. These markets were also more likely to be higher-income, with a pool of consumers who’d be more likely to be able to afford IQOS.

Big Tobacco wasn’t forthcoming about its research back then, and is still trying to create doubt around the science.

An analysis of tobacco industry documents shows that as early as the 1950s, many tobacco industry scientists acknowledged that smoking could cause lung cancer. Yet evidence suggests the industry either didn’t publish or didn’t disclose such findings outside of the industry. And nearly 50 years later, after the link between tobacco use and chronic health conditions had been thoroughly established, the chairman of Philip Morris had this to say: “I’m unclear in my own mind whether anyone dies of cigarette smoking-related diseases.”[1]

Young people, non-smokers and smokers are Big Tobacco’s test subjects.

When Big Tobacco markets these “safer” tobacco products—both to existing smokers, as they claim to do, and to young people, which they’ve been caught doing—they’re essentially recruiting test subjects. These users bear the unfortunate burden of testing what the short- and long-term health effects of these products might be. If they turn out to cause disease, as past products have, the industry likely won’t be there for these users, just as they aren’t for smokers trying to hold them accountable for the damage cigarettes have caused.

These efforts show that the tobacco industry’s true colors haven’t changed. The good news is that history doesn’t have to repeat itself. Consumers and policymakers must recognize tobacco companies’ novel product marketing as just the latest version of what it’s been doing for decades: prioritizing profits over health, at the cost of millions of lives every year.

[1] D. Shaffer, No proof that Smoking Causes Disease, Tobacco Chief Says, Pioneer Press, 1998, 3 March