When the federal government began testing cigarettes for tar and nicotine in 1967, it revolutionized smoking, launching the era of "light" cigarettes. The idea of a less harmful cigarette is so powerful that now more than 80 percent of all cigarettes sold in America are low-tar brands.
What smokers don't know is that the government's low-tar number on the pack has almost nothing to do with how much tar they're inhaling. It only tells you how much tar is being delivered to a smoking machine, not to real smokers.
Some tobacco companies knew this all along, and the federal government did as well. Since testing began, more than 12 million Americans have died from smoking- related diseases, Correspondent Scott Pelley reports.
Dr. David Burns, who has written or edited nearly every U.S. Surgeon General report on smoking since 1975, once believed the government's low-tar numbers meant something to smokers. But not any more.
According to Burns, studies show that many smokers think that low-tar cigarettes deliver less tar and are less risky.
"The truth is, it doesn't make any difference what type of cigarette you smoke," he says.
The machine used for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission test measures addictive nicotine and cancer-causing tar. The FTC publishes results brand by brand, and for 35 years tobacco companies have embraced the test as a powerful sales tool.
The FTC test doesn't measure the tar that people actually get, Burns says. "If you change the way you smoke that cigarette, if you inhale more deeply, if you draw harder on the cigarette, if you take more puffs, then you change the amount that you get from it," he adds.
Patricia Henley, for example, started smoking in 1962 at age 15. Like millions of other smokers, she worried about the hazards, so 10 years ago she called Philip Morris, who made her Marlboro cigarettes.
She told the company, "I'm hearing more and more how dangerous smoking is. Is there any truth to this?"
Henley heard exactly what an addict wanted to hear, she recalls. "And that was, 'Well, it hasn't been proven.'...'But if you're really, truly concerned about it, then you should switch to the lights.'"
When Henley started smoking the Marlboro lights, she noticed, "You had to draw more;...it didn't have the freeness. You had to inhale a lot stronger," she says.
It turns out the machine doesn't smoke like Henley or most anyone else. It takes a 2 second puff - once a minute. The machine doesn't crave addictive nicotine, but people do. Research shows people change the way they smoke to get the nicotine they need.
"Most people who smoke a low-tar cigarette do what we call compensation," says William Farone, a research scientist hired by Philip Morris in 1976 to analyze cigarette safety. "They will do something to, in fact, get more out of it."
Philip Morris has known that for nearly 30 years. A internal company document from 1974 written by the head of research says, "People smoke in such a way that they get much more than predicted by machine." The Philip Morris report recommends the FTC test should be retained because, "it gives low numbers."
So how does the cigarette deliver less tar to the machine and more to the smoker? Farone showed 60 Minutes II what most smokers overlook. There are tiny holes in the filter that allow fresh air to dilute the smoke.
"If I were to cover these (holes) with my fingers, I would get more tar than I would get if they weren't covered," Farone says. "If I put my lips over those holes, I would get more. If I suck harder, I can get more. So, there's many ways that I can defeat the idea of putting those holes there."
Another way to compensate is to simply smoke more.
It's a scam, Henley says. "How could I have gone from smoking two packs of regular cigarettes for a period of 30 years, or 25 years, and then all of a sudden, because I switched to the lights, I'm smoking three and a half packs of cigarettes a day?"
Burns, editor of many of the Surgeon General's reports on smoking, says cigarette design led to misleading numbers. "We dramatically underestimated the ability of the tobacco companies to engineer these cigarettes so that they would provide a full dose of tar to people while they provided a trivial dose of tar to the machine," he says.
"They had demonstrated in their own internal studies that the light cigarettes and the regular cigarettes, when smoked by people, delivered exactly the same amount of tar and nicotine," Burns adds.
At Philip Morris, the flaws in the government test were well known. The company decided to create a test of its own for accurate research. The company called its test the human smoking simulator, a machine that mimicked the way people really smoke. And in a 1977 summary, Philip Morris found its machine recorded tar levels more than three times higher than those reported by the FTC.
Did the company consider going to the FTC and saying it had obtained dramatically higher numbers than the government's?
"It was discussed several times that I can recall and I can remember heated debates about...obligation," says Farone, who was at Philip Morris at the time. "The decision was made that there was no legal obligation to do that."
Philip Morris declined 60 Minutes II's requests for an interview. But on its Web site, the company says that "smokers should not assume that light or ultra light brands are safe" or are safer than regular ones. The company also tells smokers that the FTC test numbers do not indicate "the actual amount of tar and nicotine they will inhale."
60 Minutes II wanted to talk to the FTC about whether smokers are being deceived, but the agency declined an interview. When testing began in 967, the FTC said the numbers did not reflect how much tar smokers could expect. But that disclaimer was buried by billions of dollars in advertising that pushed the figures as meaningful.
The aggressive advertising of the federal government's numbers has lulled many smokers into a false sense of safety. Yet a truly safer cigarette might have been developed years ago. In the 1970s, the federal government spent $100 million on low tar research. It focused on the fact that people smoke for the nicotine, but are harmed mostly by the tar.
"It is clear that to satisfy the smoker, we should give him as much nicotine as he needs and reduce everything else that goes with the nicotine," says Gio Gori, a biologist who worked for the National Cancer Institute who headed the program.
Twenty years ago, his research proved it could be done, according to Gori.
But the research was terminated because the government decided instead of making smoking safer, smoking should be eliminated. In 1984, the goal was a smoke-free America by the year 2000. Now, in 2001, there are 50 million smokers in America and nearly half a million die every year. The more tar they inhale, the more risk they have. So Gori says even a partial cut in tar would save many lives.
"We don't have to reduce the risk 100 percent," Gori says. "A 50 percent reduction would save 250,000 premature deaths here in the United States alone. That's a major public health gain any way you look at it."
Burns says that over their 30-year history, low-tar brands seem not to have improved public health. "It appears that smoking has actually become somewhat more hazardous, rather than less hazardous," he says.
It's more hazardous, researchers believe, because low-tar cigarette smokers tend to inhale more deeply, exposing more of their lungs.
After eight years on light cigarettes, Henley found herself in the hospital. "They came in the next day - five doctors surrounding my bed - saying that you have less than four months to live," she recalls.
Henley had inoperable lung cancer. She started chemotherapy and radiation to fight her cancer, then she filed a lawsuit to fight Philip Morris. She won and was awarded $26 million. For now, her cancer is in remission.
"I've been targeted by people saying, 'Who do you think you are? How dare you? You should hold responsibility,'" Henley says. "I do hold that responsibility because I'm the one that's going to die, and I know this. "
"But as long as I am here, and there's one breath left in me, it won't be to take a puff off a cigarette. It'll be to help make people realize what it is that they're picking up," she declares.
Even the U.S. Surgeon General was taken in by the false promise. In 1981, the Surgeon General's report on smoking said low-tar cigarettes might be less risky.
"We didn't do enough research," says Burns, who editethat report. "We didn't do enough science to find out what consequences those changes would have had. And we should have been able to give better advice, and we didn't...and a lot of people paid the price for our error."
For the last two years Burns has been leading a government review of the FTC test. The findings are expected this spring.
Copyright 2001 CBS. All rights reserved.