Why low-tar cigarettes don’t work & how the tobacco industry fooled the smoking public


ASH and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) today accused the tobacco industry of deliberately promoting low tar cigarettes to offer false ‘health reassurance’ while knowing that they offer no significant health benefits compared to conventional cigarettes. Despite officially declared tar levels of 1-5 mg compared to 12 mg for conventional cigarettes, a smoker switching to low tar brands such as Silk Cut Ultra or Marlboro Lights is likely to take in about the same tar as, say, a Benson & Hedges.

The basic reason for this finding is rooted in nicotine addiction. The official tar numbers are measured by a smoking machine that takes standard puffs through a steel mouth. But real smokers are different to machines. Most smoking is aimed at achieving a satisfactory nicotine ‘hit’. When faced with a low tar cigarette, a smoker will adjust smoking behaviour to ‘compensate’ – by taking more puffs per cigarette, deeper puffs or even by subconsciously blocking filter ventilation holes with lips, saliva or fingers. None of these things are done in the official machine tests.

Tobacco industry documents researched by ASH and the ICRF and released today reveal that the industry has understood and relied on this ‘compensation’ effect for many years, deliberately developed brands that would offer false reassurance to smokers concerned about their health, and cynically designed cigarettes to give low machine readings, but high tar and nicotine exposure to the smoker. The report title ‘APRILONE’ is a spoof of a Silk Cut Ultra advertising campaign which used ‘JANONE’ to suggest that switching to Silk Cut Ultra would be a good New Year resolution- effectively a health claim. Section 1 of the report explains the evidence for ‘compensation’. Section 2 shows in a series of extracts from documents that the tobacco industry fully understands and exploits this effect..

Clive Bates, Director of ASH said:

“So-called low tar cigarettes are a a grotesque confidence trick that’s been running for over twenty years. The tobacco industry has deliberately fooled millions of smokers into false reassurance in the hope they will carry on smoking rather than quit. Brands described as mild, light and low should not even be on the market as they suggest a health benefit where there isn’t one.”

“People may actually be dying from this deception. If a smoker decided to switch to a lower tar brand rather than give up, he or she is locked into the usual smoking risks of death and illness. The information on the packs and adverts is not only misleading, it is potentially harmful, and for some, it may be fatal.” said Bates.

ASH has made four recommendations to Tessa Jowell MP, the Minister for Public Health

  1. Immediately remove the tar and nicotine numbers from packets and adverts – they are thoroughly misleading and potentially harmful.
  2. Replace the numbers with a warning about nicotine addiction – for example: “Warning – this product is addictive. Regular use will make you physically dependent on it.”
  3. Require the manufacturers to withdraw all branding that implies a health benefit relative to conventional cigarettes – this would mean removal of branding such as Marlboro Lights and Silk Cut Ultra.
  4. Through the relevant EU Directive, introduce a comprehensive regulatory framework to measure and reduce the harmful components of tobacco smoke. This would create a framework and powers like that proposed by the US Food and Drug Administration and would begin to correct the extreme anomaly whereby tobacco products are largely unregulated but pharmaceuticals, including nicotine patches, are subject to very stringent regulation.

Notes to editors

  1. The ‘APRIL ONE’ (pdf): Low tar cigarettes are a deliberate con – Why low tar cigarettes don’t work and how the tobacco industry has fooled the smoking public.
    See below fo an illustrative selection of quotes.
  2. On March 8th, ASH released results of tests at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist using the official smoking machine showing that blocking the ventilation holes in the filters of low tar cigarettes raised the measured tar level by up to 12 times. For Silk Cut Ultra the tar yield was measured at 12 mg, which compares to the official figure of 1 mg. The results are detailed in APRIL ONE.



Selection of tobacco industry quotes from the APRIL ONE report

BAT defines ‘compensation’ in 1978…

Compensation may be defined as:- “Subconscious changes made to the smoking pattern by a smoker in an attempt, which may or may not be successful, to equalize the deliveries of products which have different deliveries when smoked by machine under standard conditions.” (BAT Co., 1978) 1

BAT recognises ethical dilemma and wrestles with its conscience…

“Should we market cigarettes intended to re-assure the smoker that they are safer without assuring ourselves that indeed they are so or are not less safe? For example should we ‘cheat’ smokers by ‘cheating’ League Tables? If we are prepared to accept that government has created league tables to encourage lower delivery cigarette smoking and further if we make league table claims as implied health claims – or allow health claims to be so implied – should we use our superior knowledge of our products to design them so that they give low league table positions but higher deliveries on human smoking?

Are smokers entitled to expect that cigarettes shown as lower delivery in league tables will in fact deliver less to their lungs than cigarettes shown higher?” (BAT Co.,1977) 2

…but reaches the appropriate conclusion!

“Elastic/ Compensatible Products – Irrespective of the ethics involved, we should develop alternative designs (that do not invite obvious criticism) which will allow the smoker to obtain significant enhanced deliveries should he so wish”.(BAT Co., 1984) 3

…and Philip Morris knows that Marlboro Lights are no different

“The smoker profile data reported earlier indicated that Marlboro Lights cigarettes were not smoked like regular Marlboros. In effect, the Marlboro 85 smokers in this study did not achieve any reduction in smoke intake by smoking a cigarette (Marlboro Lights) normally considered lower in delivery.” (Philip Morris, 1975) 4

The “healthy” cigarette market beckons….

“Manufacturers are concentrating on the low TPM [tar] and Nicotine segment in order to create brands…….which aim, in one way or another, to reassure the consumer that theses brands are relatively more “healthy” than orthodox blended cigarettes”(BAT Co., 1971) 5

…low tar cigarettes needed to reassure customers but keep them smoking

“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, by the perception of low deliveries and by the perception of “mildness”. Furthermore, advertising for low delivery or traditional brands should be constructed in ways so as not to provoke anxiety about health, but to alleviate it, and enable the smoker to feel assured about the habit and confident in maintaining it over time.”(BAT Co., 1977) 6



1. David Creighton BAT Co. Compensationfor Changed Delivery, 27th June, 1978. Source: Minnesota Trial Exhibit 11,089
2. BAT Co. Suggested Questions for CAC.III, 26th August 1977.Minnesota Trial Exhibit 11,390.
3. BAT Co. R&D views on potential marketing opportunities. 12thSeptember 1984. Minnesota Trial Exhibit 11,275.
4. LF Meyer inter-office memorandum to B. Goodman. Philip Morris USA. 17thSeptember 1975. Minnesota Trial Exhibit 11,564.
5. PL Short, BAT Co. A New Product. 21st October 1971. MinnesotaTrial Exhibit 10,306.
6. PL Short, BAT Co. Smoking and Health Item 7: the Effect on Marketing.14th April 1977. Minnesota Trial Exhibit 10,585.