A new study investigates how the tobacco industry managed to raise the levels of tar and nicotine in “light” cigarettes for decades without a regulatory crackdown—despite mounting proof of health hazards.
The findings could shed light on the current controversy over electronic cigarettes.
Heavily marketed as a safer, healthy alternative to smoking, electronic cigarettes are under fire from California health officials, who have declared “vaping” a public health threat.
“The e-cigarette industry has proven to be very creative in their product marketing,” says study coauthor Greta Hsu, associate professor at the University of California, Davis, Graduate School of Management.
“There’s a great deal of ambiguity about product content in the largely unregulated e-cigarette industry right now, and considerable debate over the safety, long-term risks, and effects of secondhand smoke exposure.
“At the same time, acceptance and popularity of e-cigarettes is rapidly growing, creating a market where consumers are vulnerable.”
E-cigarettes may be just one of many markets where firms strategically decouple the actual features of products from the features expected by their customers, researchers say.
“For example, as labels such as ‘low fat’ and ‘low sugar’ became increasingly taken-for-granted shortcuts for the notion of ‘healthy’ food, there is some evidence that companies increasingly manipulated underlying product characteristics to make them more palatable, such as adding more sugar or fat and adjusting the serving size to mask the increase,” says coauthor Stine Grodal, assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Management. “It’s scope creep, and it’s deceiving.”
Starting in the early 1960s, in the face of increasing public scrutiny, US tobacco firms marketed “lights” as a new, safer type of cigarette due to their low tar and nicotine content. By the 1990s, a number of light brands exceeded their full-flavor counterparts in deliveries of both components.
Using evidence from tobacco firm internal documents, the study shows that consumers decreased their scrutiny of the tar and nicotine levels of light cigarette brands as they became increasingly familiar with the light category.
Tobacco firms in turn strategically used this lack of scrutiny to increase the tar and nicotine deliveries of both new and established light cigarette brands. It wasn’t until 2009 that the federal government finally stepped in to regulate tobacco products with the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.
“While one may be tempted to regard cigarettes as an extreme case due to its links with addiction, we believe this kind of widespread manipulation of shared categorical understandings takes place in a variety of markets,” the authors write.
Researchers and the media have highlighted the potential for manipulation in several growing market categories, including organic produce, “green” products such as hybrid cars and energy-saving appliances, nontoxic beauty products, and sectors defined around craft techniques, personnel, or ingredients such as microbrews, wild fishing, and Greek yogurt.
“In such cases, without the presence of regulatory watchdogs setting and upholding clear standards, the opportunities for and likelihood of manipulations are expected to increase,” Hsu says. “One lesson is that monitoring must be done by a trusted source.”
The findings appear in the February issue of the American Sociological Review.
Source: UC Davis