Smokers swayed by labels, poll says
Users thought 'light' meant fewer risks
By ANDRé PICARD, PUBLIC HEALTH REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, November 12, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A9
Two of every three smokers of "light" cigarettes switched from "regular," and they did so largely based on the mistaken belief that the "milder" versions pose fewer health risks, a poll conducted for Health Canada says.
The survey, obtained under an access-to-information request, also reveals that one-third of smokers of light cigarettes would have quit smoking had regular cigarettes been the only kind available.
More than half of those who switched said they believed that mild cigarettes contain less tar and nicotine than regular brands, which is not true.
"The survey shows a clear linkage between the perception of lower tar and a healthier product," according to researchers.
In June of 2001, the federal minister of health vowed that the terms "light" and "mild" would be barred because they are deceitful. However, the government has not taken regulatory action.
Francis Thompson, a policy analyst at the Non-Smokers Rights Association in Ottawa, said the figures should spur the government to act, and quickly.
"When you crunch the numbers, this survey tells us that hundreds of thousands of Canadians are likely to die because of this continuing deception. It seems to me unthinkable for a government to not act swiftly on this information."
Research has shown that many smokers of light brands compensate by smoking more, inhaling more deeply or removing the filters. Tobacco manufacturers have denied that they use the terms light and mild to persuade smokers that those brands are less harmful. They say the terms are intended to indicate different tastes.
Manufacturers rejected calls to stop using the terminology voluntarily, and have vowed to fight regulations banning their use.
An estimated 5.4 million people, or 22 per cent of the population aged 15 years and over, were smokers in 2001, according to Statistics Canada. About two-thirds of smokers in Canada chose brands that are termed light or mild.
Mr. Thompson said the poll shows that smokers of light cigarettes have been conned into thinking they are safer, and that if manufacturers could not label their products in such a manner, there would be a lot fewer smokers.
The poll, conducted by Environics Research Group, was based on a survey of 1,200 smokers of light and mild cigarettes who were interviewed in January and February of this year. The results are considered accurate within 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
According to the survey, 53 per cent of respondents believe their brands have lower levels of tar, 49 per cent believe they have less nicotine and 30 per cent believe they contain fewer toxins and chemicals. Eighteen per cent of smokers of light and mild brands think those cigarettes are less harmful to their health, and 14 per cent think they have less risk of an early death than do smokers of regular cigarettes.
But overall, 86 per cent of those surveyed said smoking likely will cause serious health problems.
Respondents cited a number of reasons for switching to mild cigarettes: they are less harsh (24 per cent), taste better (21 per cent), health reasons (18 per cent), as a step towards quitting (14 per cent) and because they contain less tar/nicotine (12 per cent).
The survey identified 65 per cent of smokers of light brands as "potential quiters:" They are thinking seriously of kicking the habit. More than half said they hoped to quit smoking within six months.
But the survey gave a hint of how addictive cigarettes can be: Sixty-two per cent of respondents said they had tried to quit in the past year but had failed.
Canadians smokers consume, on average, about 16 cigarettes daily. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including at least 50 carcinogens.
Smoking kills about 45,000 Canadians annually, according to Health Canada.