FRIDAY, May 27, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Savvy tobacco companies are using color and other design elements to circumvent new U.S. regulations that crack down on misleading cigarette packaging, researchers say.
As of June 2010, tobacco companies were prohibited from using terms such as "light," "mild" or "low," which minimize the dangers of smoking, in advertising and on cigarette packaging. But tobacco companies have found other terms, colors and even numbers to create an illusion of safety, according to several new studies from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.
The researchers determined that certain design features -- light- or pastel-colored packaging associated with mild cigarettes, for example, and carefully chosen numbers -- enable cigarette makers to skirt the laws.
"Though the removal of descriptor terms like 'mild,' 'light' and 'low' are a good start, manufacturers have basically replaced these terms with terms such as 'gold' and 'silver,' and changed the shading on packs to continue to mislead consumers," said study author Maansi Bansal-Travers, a behavioral research scientist at Roswell Park.
Another expert agreed that cigarette makers are using code language to falsely convince consumers that some cigarettes are less deadly than others.
"From international evidence, we know smokers who see white, silver or light colored packs are likely to associate them with lower harm products; blue packs with mild products; red with regular [full-flavor] products; and green with menthol," said Janet Hoek, a professor of marketing at University of Otago in New Zealand. "Pack colors have become quite strongly paired in smokers," and they now recognize them without any verbal descriptions, she added.
Hoek, who was not involved with the research, is an expert on tobacco regulation and other issues.
The three studies, published in the June issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, conclude that cigarettes should be sold in standardized plain packs with coloring restricted much like wording.
In one study, about 190 smokers were shown six cigarette packages of Marlboro or Peter Jackson, a brand sold in Australia. The packages, in different shades and colors, had all text removed other than the brand name.
Participants who said they were concerned with health, tar, nicotine and safety overwhelmingly picked the "whitest" package, such as an ivory-colored pack of Peter Jackson's.
In a second experiment, researchers showed about 200 smokers and 200 nonsmokers pictures of cigarette packages that differed by a single element, either color (for example, light blue vs. dark blue); number ("10" vs. "6" ); or the size of the health warning.
About 87 percent said they'd choose the lighter colored package over the darker one if they were trying to reduce their health risks. The lighter colored package was also strongly associated with smoother taste and less tar.
About 89 percent of those concerned about health said they'd pick the package with the number "6" vs. "10," while 88 percent believed the packaging marked with a "10" had more tar than one marked with a "6."
About 81 percent thought a package labeled "full flavor" had more tar than one with the word "silver" on the front, while 78 percent said they would choose the "silver" pack to reduce health risks.
A third study tested reactions to proposed "corrective" statements about tobacco company misinformation that the U.S. federal court in the Department of Justice case against cigarette manufacturers is seeking to slap on cigarette packages.
Study participants temporarily increased their knowledge about smoking risks, but the researchers concluded that people need sustained exposure for such messages to sink in.
These efforts stem in part from the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, which granted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration broad powers to regulate the manufacturing, advertising and promotion of tobacco products as a means of protecting public health.
The United States is following the lead of other countries in cracking down on misleading cigarette packaging. More than a dozen nations have stringently regulated cigarette packaging for years, with some requiring gruesome images on the packaging.
Starting in 2012, U.S. cigarette makers may have to cover half the packages with more graphic warning labels and vivid images of the dangers of smoking. The FDA is still mulling which labels to choose.
"Despite the graphic warning labels, which will be great progress in educating consumers about the risks of smoking, there is still 50 percent of the pack that can be used to mislead consumers on the relative risks of their products," Bansal-Travers said.
Marketing experts agree that the new legislation may not keep the packages from conveying subtle but powerful messages about the cigarettes inside.
"Packaging is what sells the product at the point of purchase," said Jeremy Kees, an assistant professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business.
"Up to 70 to 80 percent of consumer decisions are actually made in the store at the point of purchase," Kees said. "Of course, advertising and other promotions are important, but the packaging is the unspoken salesperson for the product."
View the FDA's cigarette packaging proposal here.