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‘Death Repackaged’: Ad campaign to unmask ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarettes

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by Cancer Research UK | News

22 September 2003

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Cancer Research UK will unveil its first ever tobacco awareness ad blitz today. The ads will expose how smokers may have been misled by suggestions that so called ‘low-tar’ or ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarettes are less dangerous than regular cigarettes.

The series of powerful adverts are the first in a three-year anti-tobacco campaign run by Cancer Research UK and funded by the Department of Health. The funding comes from a £15 million war chest ear-marked by the government to involve major charities in telling the public about the dangers of tobacco.

One of the aims of the campaign – titled ‘Death Repackaged’ – is to highlight how brand and marketing strategies may have misled smokers about the perceived health benefits of smoking ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarettes. These terms will be outlawed under the European Union’s Directive On Tobacco Product Regulation, which comes into force on September 30, 2003.

Little information has been provided for smokers on the effects of ‘low-tar’ cigarettes and the impression has been created that such products are safer. This ad campaign seeks to inform smokers that all cigarettes are deadly, whatever it says on the packaging. The terms ‘light’ and ‘mild’ do not mean that a cigarette is less deadly to the smoker than a regular cigarette.

Despite the forthcoming ban on these terms, smokers will continue to face confusing brand messages from the tobacco industry. The ‘low-tar’ terms such as ‘light’, ‘mild’, or ‘ultra light’ have disappeared from packs, but the brands remain through subtle design changes or new names like ‘silver’, ‘white’, ‘fine’ or ‘smooth’.

The hard-hitting ‘Death Repackaged’ campaign will be spread across TV, radio, newspapers and billboards. Its central theme is that if something is dangerous, giving it a friendlier name or image does not make it less deadly. One of the ads shows a Great White Shark leaping from the ocean. The shark’s name is “Susie” – but giving a shark a pleasant name does not make it any less dangerous.

The campaign is fully funded by the Department of Health. The ads are part of a £15 million three-year government initiative funding key charities to run hard-hitting campaigns that better inform the public about the dangers of smoking. It is hoped that by arming smokers with all of the facts they will seriously consider quitting cigarettes.

Launching the campaign, Public Health Minister Melanie Johnson says: “The effects of smoking are devastating. Not only does it cause 120,000 deaths annually, the economic costs to the NHS are estimated at £1.7 billion every year.

“By giving funding to charities who deal with the consequences of smoking, we can help raise awareness of the dangers. I am happy to welcome the new Cancer Research UK campaign as the first example of this initiative.

“By banning misleading terms such as ‘light’ and ‘mild’ we are making a positive move which will help reduce the prevalence of smoking related diseases. This campaign will increase the awareness of this move and make people realise that the only healthy option when it comes to smoking is stopping altogether.”

Professor Gerard Hastings, Director of the Cancer Research UK Centre for Tobacco Control Research at the University of Strathclyde, says: “The tobacco industry allows the belief that some cigarettes are ‘milder’ than others to persist. This provides smokers with a ‘fall back’ position with their addiction – naturally a smoker feels they are moving in the right direction by choosing a ‘low-tar’ brand and often this is done instead of quitting. The longer a smoker’s addiction continues, the longer they’ll be contributing to the tobacco industry’s profits.”

Although the tobacco industry claims it has never told smokers that ‘low-tar’ cigarettes are safer, Professor Hastings points to the industry’s own internal documents. The following two extracts show how there was an aim to retain and reassure smokers about their health.

“Who are we talking to? The core low tar (and Silk Cut) smoker is female (though males are by no means to be ignored), upmarket, aged 25 plus, a smart health conscious professional who feels guilty about smoking but either doesn’t want to give up or can’t. Although racked with guilt they feel reassured that in smoking low tar they are making a smart choice and will jump at any chance to make themselves feel better about their habit.”

M&C Saatchi. Silk Cut: Creative Brief for Gallaher, 2 October 1997

  • “Use of white on the pack
  • White signals the low tar category
  • Correlation between amount of white, and the tar/nicotine levels of the cigarette
  • The whiter the pack, the healthier they are
  • Looks less harmful than other brands
  • Critical to retain key elements of Silk Cut communication: low tar (“healthy”), quality and distinctiveness (combination of gold and purple)”

Haslam Drury. Silk Cut Packaging Development Qualitative Debrief, 7 April 1998

Professor Martin Jarvis, from the Health Behaviour Unit at University College London, adds: “Cutting back to a supposedly ‘low-tar’ cigarette can easily be a fool’s paradise. Without realising it, people smoke these cigarettes more intensively, and end up getting just as much exposure to tar and other harmful smoke components as from regular cigarettes.”

Professor Alex Markham, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, says: “Unfortunately there is no such thing as ‘Lung Cancer Extra Mild’. A ‘healthy cigarette’ does not exist – whatever the pack suggests.”