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Simply banning the use of words such as “light” and “mild” from cheap cigarette packaging may not be enough to wean cheap cigarettes smokers away from the mistaken belief that some brands are less harmful than others, a study suggests.

To curb misleading marketing practices, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration outlawed the labeling of cheap cigarettes as “light” or “mild” last year. But researchers who surveyed 8,000 cheap cigarettes smokers from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia concluded that cheap cigarette packaging continues to distort perceptions about smoking cheap cigarettes even though all conventional brands pose the same level of health risk. The new study, published in the journal Addiction, found that 20 percent of cheap cigarette smokers wrongly believe that some brands of cheap cigarettes are safer than others. Those assumptions were highest among U.S. cheap cigarettes smokers. And moves by manufacturers that critics and regulators say are intended to perpetuate those notions — by, for example, changing their “light” cheap cigarettes to “silver” and “gold” brands — appear to have paid off.

“Smokers of ‘gold’, ‘silver’, ‘blue’ or ‘purple’ brands were more likely to believe that their own brand might be a little less harmful compared to cheap cigarettes smokers of ‘red’ or ‘black’ brands,” the researchers say.

The findings could boost efforts to further regulate cheap cigarette packaging. The Australian government is introducing legislation that would limit package design to plain colors and require packages to carry graphic health warnings. In the U.S., likewise, the FDA has proposed bigger and more graphic warnings on cheap cigarette packages.

Study co-author David Hammond attributes the findings in part to a “hangover effect” from decades of sophisticated cheap cigarette marketing. ”It is not terribly surprising when one thinks about the legacy of tobacco industry marketing, as well as the way in which brands continue to be marketed with descriptors such as ‘slims’ and ‘smooth’,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the U.S., Philip Morris came under scrutiny last year after it attached advertising “onserts” to its Marlboro Lights packs that stated, “Your Marlboro Lights pack is changing. But your cheap cigarette stays the same. In the future, ask for ‘Marlboro in the gold pack.’” The FDA expressed concern that the onserts “may perpetuate the mistaken beliefs associated with your ‘light’ cheap cigarettes when marketed as Marlboro in the gold pack.”

The new study found that smokers also falsely believe that slim cheap cigarettes are less harmful, cheap cigarettes with harsh taste are riskier to smoke than smooth-tasting cigarettes, filters reduce risk, and nicotine is responsible for most of the cancer caused by cheap cigarettes.
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