Tobacco companies will no longer be able to use the words "light," "low-tar" and "mild" on their labels without an explicit federal approval, and must affix larger, bolder health warnings to chewing tobacco and other smokeless products.
The requirements are part of a new set of rules the Federal Drug Administration issued this week to regulate the tobacco industry. The agency, which began overseeing tobacco products last year, has already banned fruit- and candy-flavored cigarettes such as toffee, lime, and strawberry, that have special appeal for children.
As part of its renewed push to reduce the toll of tobacco-related disease and addiction in the U.S., the FDA is also cracking down on tobacco marketing to kids. It has banned the sale of cigarettes in vending machines and self-serving displays, and retailers can no longer sell single cigarettes ("loosies") or "kiddie packs" with fewer than 20 cigarettes, which makes them more affordable. Sales clerks must I.D. check anyone who appears to be younger than 27.
The new penalties for selling tobacco products to children range from $250 for a first violation to $10,000 for six violations or more.
Hitting the brakes even harder, the FDA's new rules ban all tobacco-brand sponsorships of sports, entertainment and cultural events, and all giveaways of non-tobacco items, such as hats and T-shirts, with the purchase of tobacco.
With the new labeling rule, the federal regulator seeks to correct a common consumer misperception.
"Tobacco companies have used terms like 'low' and 'light' to deceive the public into believing that some cigarettes are safer and to discourage smokers from quitting," said Vince Willmore, spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington nonprofit. "This has been a very harmful deception and a deadly fraud that has cost many lives."
Up to 90% of consumers believe that there's a health benefit from smoking low-tar or "light" cigarettes, but scientific studies show they are just as hazardous as regular, "full-flavor" ones. The ban on using such descriptors, Willmore said, "goes beyond semantics."
But tobacco companies have managed to stay a step ahead of the government. In anticipation of the ban, they have already tapped a new advertising vein by introducing lighter-colored packaging for some brands and switching to terms such as "gold" and "silver" to replace "light" and "ultra-light."
Every day nearly 4,000 kids under 18 try their first cigarette and 1,000 of them become daily smokers, according to the FDA.
Tobacco kills more than 440,000 people each year in the U.S. and costs $96 billion annually in health care expenditures. Yet tobacco companies continue to spend $12.8 billion a year -- $35 million a day -- to market their products.
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