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FTC Announces Changes in Cigarette Tar Rating System


February 1996

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it will require tobacco companies to overhaul their methods of measuring and disclosing tar and nicotine ratings in cigarette advertising (Alix M. Freedman, "FTC Will Overhaul Tar and Nicotine Ratings," New York Times, December 28, 1995, p. B1).

In a report to be released this month, the FTC examines evidence that the current system of measuring tar and nicotine does not accurately indicate what smokers actually inhale. The FTC proposes that advertising be required to reveal the wide range of tar and nicotine levels that can actually be inhaled, instead of a single number. The FTC would also require ads to warn smokers that their actual tar and nicotine consumption depends on their own smoking technique.

According to the FTC, the current tar and nicotine rating system falsely reassures smokers, particularly those who smoke "light" cigarettes," that they are consuming low levels of tar and nicotine. Smokers then engage in "compensation," making up for the perceived low levels by smoking more, inhaling more deeply, covering up the filter's ventilation, or taking more frequent puffs.

Philip Morris' top spokesperson, Steven Parrish, said his company believes that the current method of testing for tar and nicotine is useful and adequate because it allows smokers to compare tar and nicotine levels among various brands. Other tobacco industry officials say the rating system was never meant to mimic human smoking, only to offer a benchmark to compare brands.

The FTC tar and nicotine ratings are often used to illustrate lower tar or "light" cigarettes. In an upcoming article to be published in the American Journal of Public Health, University of Florida marketing professor Joel Cohen reports that 56% of low-tar smokers incorrectly use the advertised tar numbers to make judgments about cigarettes' safety.