"Light" cigarettes are going up in smoke by the end of June, but their names and packaging are getting a colorful makeover.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says cigarette packs no longer can feature names such as "light," "mild," "medium" or "low," which many smokers wrongly think are less harmful than "full-flavor" cigarettes.
Cigarette makers are replacing those words with colors such as gold, silver, blue and orange on brands that make up more than half of the smokes sold across the country.
Anti-tobacco advocates say the colors are just as bad as the words, but tobacco companies argue they have a right to let smokers know which products are which.
Companies insist the words tell smokers about the taste, feel and blend of a cigarette, not health risks. The cigarettes usually feature different filters and milder-flavored blends.
Long years of advertising, however, emphasized measurements of lower tar and nicotine in "light" cigarettes, even though those were measured with smoking machines that don't mirror how real smokers puff. For example, smokers will inhale more deeply or smoke more cigarettes if they're not getting the amount of nicotine they want.
Studies show that about 90 percent of smokers and nonsmokers believe that cigarettes described as "light" or have certain colors on the packages are less harmful even though "all commercial cigarettes are equally lethal," said David Hammond, a health behavior researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
Colors shape perceptions of risks on all products, Hammond said. For example, mayonnaise and soda usually use lighter colors on their packaging to distinguish between diet, light and regular products.
He called the removal of those few words on cigarette packs "necessary but not sufficient measures" to improve public health or reduce false perceptions.
"This is essentially mopping up the worst excesses of what the courts in the U.S. have judged to be deceptive advertising," he said. "Tobacco companies are going to need words to distinguish their brands; it's just a question of identifying what descriptors or words lead to false beliefs."
He suggested the FDA take the ban even further and restrict both color and words such as "smooth" and "slim."
Other countries are considering going even further. The Australian government proposed legislation last month that would make manufacturers sell cigarettes in plain, standard packaging, without colors and logos. More than 40 countries already have laws prohibiting terms similar to what the FDA is banning.
The idea of further packaging restrictions has the industry gasping for breath.
"Absent this information, massive confusion in the marketplace would result," James E. Swauger, vice president of regulatory oversight for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the nation's second-biggest cigarette company, wrote in a letter to the FDA.
Swauger warned that, if the FDA were to go as far as banning colors, consumers wouldn't be able to distinguish between brands, and manufacturers could be limited to one type of cigarette per brand because they'd have no other way to distinguish their products.
The company, owned by Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Reynolds American Inc., made slight changes to some of its brands' packs, but for some, it was simply removing the words like "light" on already colorful packages.
The nation's largest cigarette company, Philip Morris USA, made more than 150 packaging changes to comply. It also has included inserts in packs and displays at retail locations telling customers to "In the Future, Ask For..." the new name or color of their brand.
For example, the company is replacing its Marlboro Light cigarettes with Marlboro Gold Pack; its Marlboro Menthol Milds will be known as Marlboro Menthol Blue Pack. Philip Morris USA is owned by Altria Group Inc., based in Richmond, Va.
While customers may already see some of the new packaging in stores, calling their smokes by their old names may be a harder habit to break than smoking itself.
"I'll ask for Newport Light 100s, and I'll let them decipher it," said 52-year-old Joe McKenna, a teacher and longtime smoker from Pearl River, N.Y., whose brand made by Lorillard Inc. is now known as Newport Menthol Gold. "It's just kind of ridiculous in the sense that you know they're harmful for you."