Liveblogging The Senate Commerce Committee Hearing On Cigarettes, The FTC, And Deceptive Advertising

Starting today at 2:30 p.m., the Senate Commerce Committee will ask the FTC why it can’t accurately measure the level of tar or nicotine in cigarettes. The Commission has admitted: “[our] ratings tend to be relatively poor predictors of tar and nicotine exposure.” The Committee is concerned that “light” and “ultra light” cigarettes are really just dolled-up deathsticks slapped a pretty name, and that the FTC doesn’t have sufficient legal firepower to stamp out deceptive marketing practices.

Today’s smoker will feature two panels. The government agencies responsible for keeping us informed, if not safe – the FTC, the National Cancer Institute, and the CDC – will testify first, followed by scientists from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Penn State University.

Take out a cigarette and meet us in the foyer at 2:30 for the latest from Washington.
(Photo: zakgollop)

02:25: Video Link – In the olden days, hearing rooms came filled with smoke.
02:35: And we’re called to order. Mostly empty room, which is surprising for a tobacco hearing.
02:36: The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has determined that light cigarettes can often be more deadly than regular cigarettes.

02:37: This Senator, whoever he is, was convinced to stop smoking when his 10-year-old daughter came home from school and told him that smokers get black boxes in their throats, and asked when he would be getting one. Aww, cute.

02:37: This is new, the Committee has a short video.

02:38: It apparently demonstrates “the FTC method and the smoking robot.”

02:38: “Smokers don’t smoke like a robot.”

02:38: This thing is high-tech and blurry. It looks like menacing rectangle with wires.

02:39: The FTC admits that they don’t know what they’re doing with tar and nicotine ratings. Why should big tobacco hide behind flawed ratings to claim that their products are healthier?

02:41: Who is this guy Chairing? Ah, it’s Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). He wrote the law banning smoking on airplanes. Next time you fly and see the ‘tampering with smoke detectors carries a $2,000 fine,’ you can know to thank Frank.

02:42: Stevens is here! There’s something about his voice, we can’t help but smile.

02:42: He’s reading from a statement, unwilling to wing it.

02:43: Oh no! He has another meeting at 3:30, but he’s looking forward to finding out why the FTC test remains the same if cigarette technology has changed.

02:43: Big tobacco was invited to testify, but for some reason, they refused to attend. Something about their 1994 experience may still be fresh in their minds.

02:45: FTC Commissioner William E. Kovacic is testifying. His agency has taken bold steps to curb the proliferation of cigarettes.

02:45: Their original test was designed to provide a uniform standard for judging the tar and nicotine content for cigarettes.

02:46: Smokers of light cigarettes often inhale deeper to get more of that yummy, luscious nicotine.

02:46: The FTC has wanted to change the test, but scientists asked them to wait until there was more science.

02:48: Still, all science says light cigarettes aren’t healthier at all.

02:49: They will change the test as soon as the science is complete. At that point, a newer, better smoking robot will be released.

02:49: The FTC wanted to hand over cigarette testing to “one of the science-based agencies.” They again recommend that a science agency take over the smoking robot. It looks cool, we’ll take it.

02:50: Cathy Backinger of the National Cancer Institute is also concerned that light, low tar, and ultra light, present “the illusion of risk reduction.”

02:51: Big tobacco apparently likes deceptive practices (filters, health claims) to keep people from quitting. That’s news to us.

02:52: She makes light cigarette smokers sound like scuba divers. Deep breathes, held breathes, all to contain life-sustaining nourishment.

02:53: “Light cigarettes are not an alternative to quitting.” Thank you for that.

02:54: Internal big tobacco documents show that cigarette makers know they’re deceiving people, but like profits more than the truth.

02:56: David L. Ashley of the CDC has a lab that tests cigarettes, people’s response to cigarettes, and it sounds like they too have a smoking robot.

02:57: We think there’s great holiday gift potential for the smoking robot.

02:57: The CDC’s smoking robot tests up to 20 cigarettes at a time.

02:58: This guy is Mr. Science on speed. He has tests, results… lots of science.

02:59: Smoking robot doesn’t try to suck down nicotine, unlike smokers. Smoking robot can’t be trusted.

02:59: Super smoking robots exist, with bigger “breaths.” These robots can inhale 50ml or 45ml puffs, which better approximates the average smoker’s experience.

03:00: In sum, he wants more smoking robots for greater testing variation, not just the FTC’s robot. We approve.

03:01: Senator Lautenberg is impressed both at the panelist’s detail, and their ability to stick to the 5-minute limit.

03:02: Before we go further, we would like to request that the Committee order the FTC’s robots to fight the CDC’s robots in a cigarette testing battle to the death. All in favor?

03:03: The FTC really doesn’t want responsibility for testing cigarettes. Moreover, they aren’t sure if anyone benefits from their tests at all.

03:04: The military taught Lautenberg how to smoke. Cigarettes were used to calm the nerves.

03:05: We’re starting to go in circles here. Nobody likes the FTC tests, big tobacco knows that the tests are useless.

3:09: The design of the cigarette affects the FTC’s test, but the CDC isn’t going to ascribe motive to big tobacco.

3:10: The FTC can alter its robots to get better test results.

3:10: They can also work with colleagues to draw attention to how the robots aren’t accurate?

3:10: The robots are not government property. They are owned by a trade association.

3:11: The FTC used to test, but they abandoned their robots in the mid-80s, when they realized that robots were expensive and not accurate.

3:11: NCI doesn’t have robots.

3:11: The CDC owns its robots.

3:11: Stevens: “Where did you get them?”

3:11: The CDC bought them from manufacturers who sell to big tobacco.

3:12: Stevens doesn’t want excuses. He wants to know if any agency has asked for money to buy robots, or build better robots.

3:12: These robots are from the 60s? Damn, that’s Jetsons old!

3:13: Increasing cigarette taxes reduces cigarette use. That’s applicable to the SCHIP debate going on.

3:14: Stevens wants to know if anyone prosecutes cigarette bootleggers.

3:14: Bootlegging is up to the states or customs, but the fedgov doesn’t care all that much. At least not the FTC and CDC.

3:15: Stevens: “Cigarette makers do a lot of advertising. I’ve seen some as a matter of fact.”

3:15: Youth smoking has increased since the landmark tobacco settlement.

3:16: Stevens wants to know if anybody has ever studied pipe smoking. Nobody has done a study.

3:17: The NCI did study cigar use, but emphasizes that all tobacco, regardless of form, causes cancer.

3:18: Lautenberg: “Do you believe tobacco advertising increase is the reason we’re seeing an increase in smoking?”

3:19: The FTC thinks it’s a function of less money going towards tobacco control.

3:19: Lautenberg thinks “the most efficient testing machines are humans.”

3:19: Apparently, this smoking thing causes cancer and heart disease and slew of other fun ailments.

3:21: @parad0x360, @Hambriq: Studies show that most people think light and ultra light cigarettes are healthier than regular cigarettes.

3:24: Jonathan M. Samet, Epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, is arguing that the US’ actions have global consequences.

3:25: Epidemiology studies show that light cigarettes are just as dangerous as regular cigarettes.

3:28: Cigarette content warnings often have no relation to what people end up inhaling or processing.

3:28: The FTC tests are misleading to smokers, as are warning labels.

3:29: Onto Jack Henningfield, who has a ridiculous mass of silver hair.

3:30: He’s a Vice President for Research and Health Policy at Pinney Associates, and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins.

3:30: The marketing and warning labels undermine all efforts to keep kids away from cigarettes.

3:31: Americans are too quick to trust product content labels.

3:31: This guy’s own sister doesn’t believe that the FTC would allow cigarette companies to publish false information.

3:32: Hey commenters, consumers flocked to cigarettes with lower tar and nicotine levels when they were introduced. The lower ratings came care of the FTC’s flawed tests.

3:33: The FTC underestimated big tobacco’s willingness to design cigarettes that could circumvent the FTC’s tests.

3:34: Major design changes include ventilation holes that smokers can cover, but machines ignore.

3:35: @Beerad: That’s the problem. Most people conflate less nicotine and less tar with health. But the tests aren’t accurate, and the cigarettes aren’t healthier.

3:36: 60% of cigarettes are sold in convenience stores. How convenient. Teenagers spend twice as much time hanging out in convenience stores as adults. Really? That’s it? Twice as much?

3:37: “Teenagers talk about what they see. It’s called viral marketing.” This is Marvin Goldberg, professor of marketing at Penn State talking.

3:38: 4 out of 5 smokers say they smoke light cigarettes for health benefits. Studies show that people can’t be convinced that light cigarettes are the same as regular cigarettes.

3:39: He’s making our point. It’s syllogistic reasoning: light cigarettes have less tar. Less tar is healthier. Ergo, light cigarettes are healthier.

3:41: Stephen Sheller, of Sheller P.C. claims that the tobacco industry simply can’t be trusted.

3:44: They know what’s going on, but they don’t want to do anything to keep people healthier.

3:44: He just compared big tobacco to Katrina.

3:44: If they admit something is wrong, they become culpable. They hate suits more than anything, so they go to great lengths to feign ignorance.

3:45: He wants a legislated ban on listing tar and nicotine levels.

3:46: One federal judge called big tobacco: “The king of disinformation and concealment.” Another called them “racketeers.”

3:47: Lautenberg doesn’t want to show any bias that isn’t “Senator-like,” but he’s worried that tobacco kills over 400,000 Americans every year.

3:49: Telephone surveys show that people who quit would be willing to take up smoking again if they thought that cigarettes were safer.

3:51: Sheller is pissed that the FTC never does anything. He wants their jurisdiction yanked. “Put an end to it, please.”

3:52: Most light cigarette smokers don’t realize that they are inhaling toxins.

3:53: The taste is smoother and cooler, leading people to think that it’s also safer. Not unlike “fruit drinks and alcohol.”

3:53: Lautenberg: “Is this simply deceiving consumers while the government looks the other way?”

3:54: ‘This area is not the FTC’s competence.’ Dr. Henningfield thinks that the FDA has significant experience determining standards for “light”. No reason that similar standards can’t apply to cigarettes.

3:56: Lautenberg wants to know why nobody cares about the Surgeons General’s warning.

3:56: Smokers are committed, like sports fans. They’re not dispassionate and reasonable.

3:59: The hearing is adjourned.


Edit Your Comment

  1. parad0x360 says:

    Deceptive? I dont know about that. I have never known a smoker to thought lights meant they werent as bad for you. They all knew light meant the taste and feel of the smoke…and that goes as far back as when I was like 15.

  2. Hambriq says:

    I didn’t even realize that “Light” could somehow imply “healthier”, especially given that there’s a big “YOU WILL DIE IF YOU SMOKE THIS PRODUCT” stamped on the box. Back when I used to smoke (eh, go figure), I smoked Camel Lights. To me, the “Light” was their way of saying, “This cigarette does not taste like you are eating sawdust.”

    Of course, on the other hand, it wouldn’t really matter either way. Would any smoker care (or even notice) if they changed their name to something like Camel Mild?

  3. chiefpayne says:

    This is just so hypocritical! If it’s bad for you and Congress and everyone else want smokers to quit, then talk to the FDA and have them make it an ILLEGAL SUBSTANCE in this country.

    All this other crap is just politics as usual!

  4. ElizabethD says:

    That little guy with the ciggie is the cutest crab ever.

  5. ChrisC1234 says:

    You know, I’d be willing to bet that if regular cigarettes were labeled “Regular Cancer” and light ones were labeled “Light Cancer”, sales on both would drop :)

  6. Beerad says:

    I always thought that “light” referred to less nicotine and tar content (and thus “healthier” but obviously not “healthy”). But I’m a nonsmoker so maybe I would have looked into it more if I was going to light up. Or maybe I’m just cigarette-ignorant.

  7. MercuryPDX says:

    @Beerad: Light and Ultra light usually refer to “flavor”.

  8. chiefpayne says:

    Who cares if it’s light or not. They sell light beer but I suspect you can get just as drunk on it.

    I say, if so many people want everyone to quit smoking for “the good of all of us”, then make it an illegal substance and let the financial chips fall where they may.

  9. Hambriq says:

    “4 out of 5 smokers say they smoke light cigarettes for health benefits.”

    Wow. I want to meet these 4 out of 5.

  10. theirishscion says:

    @chiefpayne: Um, actually for the first couple of years after I moved to the states, I just sort of assumed that light beers were reduced alcohol… Boy was I red when I was disabused of that notion.

    Well, in fairness, they didn’t get me drunk like I expected a beer to. It was a reasonable mistake. That and they don’t publish alcohol content on beer over here. Actually, now I think about it, why the heck don’t they?

  11. entitynein says:

    @ChrisC1234: You underestimate the dedication of most smokers. Hell, we (yep, we) call them cancer sticks, too. It reminds me of a Dennis Leary quote from “No Cure for Cancer” – “It doesn’t matter how big the warnings on the cigarettes are; you could have a black pack, with a skull and crossbones on the front, called TUMORS, and smokers would be around the block going, “I can’t wait to get my hands on these f**king things! I bet ya get a tumor as soon as you light up!””

    Do we know it’s bad for us? Of course. Call me a libertarian, but I don’t smoke near non-smokers, I don’t smoke around anyone who would be put off by it, and I’m the first to move away when someone walks by who doesn’t look like they wish to be around it. I have some social conscience.

    @chiefpayne: Alcohol prohibition worked pretty well, it’d work equally well for smoking! Oh, wait…

  12. geneb5 says:

    Those born after 1990–apparently most of the informed commenters here–may not, to their shock, know everything there is to know in the world.

    They may not know, for example, that as far back as 1957 the Blatnick Commission sought out the truth about filtered vs. nonfiltered cigarettes. The Commission found that both were extremely hazardous to health. The conclusion: “The cigarette manufacturers have deceived the American public through their advertising of cigarettes.” Blatnick was relieved of his chairmanship and his subcommittee was immediately dissolved; the report fell into a black hole.

    They may not know that health authorities in the 50s-70s, thinking they had the best information available, actually said, yes, it appears filtered and “light” cigarettes may have a reduced risk of cancer. If you must smoke, switch.

    The point of the Lautenberg hearings is that for decades the industry itself actually studied this issue and knew better than anyone else that the FTC system they promulgated was misleading and horribly flawed. There was no “safer cigarette.”

    That we as a generation failed to protect our populace and our kids from the ravages of tobacco by giving them accurate information may be put down not just to the considerable power and influence of the tobacco industry, but to arrogant and ignorant opinionators like some on this board, joyfully snarking away about something they know precious little about.

  13. MercuryPDX says:

    @entitynein: I don’t smoke near non-smokers, I don’t smoke around anyone who would be put off by it, and I’m the first to move away when someone walks by who doesn’t look like they wish to be around it. I have some social conscience.

    I also try to be conscious of my surroundings. I even do the “cowboy clip” (Pinch the hot part off the butt, and throw the remainder in the trash). We’re in the minority.

  14. iamme99 says:

    What many smokers don’t realize is just how much they reek from smoking. Breath mints don’t help and fanning the air doesn’t help.

    Even if you stand outside to smoke, if I share an elevator or walk into your office/cube, I can tell you have been smoking while standing many feet away. And you can almost always tell a smoker by looking at color of their teeth, which will be tinged yellow.

    Which is all funny because I think I notice smoke more as I’ve gotten older that when I was younger. As a kid, I worked in offices during the ’70’s where people smoked right at their desks and in the bathrooms and I never seemed to notice it then. Maybe because there are less smokers now, so it stands out more.