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Are ‘natural’ cigarette smokers being misled?

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By Madeline Kennedy

(Reuters Health) – Natural American Spirit tobacco products are marketed as “natural” and “additive-free,” and many users think that means the cigarettes are safer to smoke, according to a recent U.S. study.

This raises the concern that people who might otherwise quit smoking might switch to American Spirit instead, thinking they will be safer, the researchers write in the journal Tobacco Control.

In a national survey of smokers, almost 64 percent of Natural American Spirit users considered their own brand to be “safer” than other cigarettes, while only 8 percent of those who used other tobacco brands thought this.

“American Spirit smokers are being misled,” said lead study author Jennifer Pearson, a research investigator at Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at Truth Initiative in Washington, D.C.

“They believe that their product is less harmful than other brands but there is absolutely no evidence to support that belief,” Pearson told Reuters Health by email.

Natural American Spirit cigarettes and loose tobacco are made by Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, which is owned by Reynolds American. The product packaging describes them as being “100 percent additive-free” and some products are made with organically-grown tobacco. The packaging also carries the statement, “No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette.”

In August 2015, however, the FDA issued a warning letter to Santa Fe Natural and two other tobacco manufacturers, stating that their labeling and advertising of products as “natural” and “additive-free” violates section 911 of the Tobacco Control Act, because it improperly implies that “the tobacco products present a lower risk of tobacco-related disease or is less harmful than one or more other commercially marketed tobacco products,” the study team notes.

To determine whether American Spirit smokers view the brand this way, Pearson and her team analyzed data from over 30,000 adult smokers who participated in a national study of Americans and tobacco use in 2013 and 2014.

Participants identified their usual brand of cigarettes and answered questions about whether they thought their brand was more, less or equally harmful compared to other cigarette brands. The smokers also noted how often they think about the harm from their tobacco use and answered questions about their drug or alcohol use as well as their mental and physical health and lifestyles.

Overall, 2.3 percent of smokers reported Natural American Spirit as their usual brand.

Nearly 36 percent of American Spirit smokers believed their brand was as harmful as other brands and less than 1 percent believed their brand was more harmful. In comparison, 83 percent of smokers of other brands thought their brand was just as harmful as others, and 8 percent thought it was more harmful.

People who thought often about the harms of tobacco use were more likely to smoke American Spirits, compared with people who rarely or never thought about this question, researchers found.

This is especially concerning, they write, as these people might be more likely to quit if they didn’t believe their cigarettes were less harmful.

American Spirit smokers were more likely than other smokers to be under 35 years old and to have used alcohol or marijuana in the past month.

LGBTQ smokers were also more likely to choose American Spirit cigarettes as their preferred brand, and the researchers note that American Spirit ads specifically target this group, which is already at greater risk for worse health.

“Many smokers erroneously believe that most of the harm from smoking comes from additives or chemicals that companies add to the tobacco,” said David Hammond, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “Therefore, marketing American cigarettes as organic or additive free promotes the belief that the brand is less harmful than others,” Hammond, who was not involved in the study, said by email.

Cigarette smoke contains thousands of chemicals with or without additives and all burning cigarettes are equally harmful, Hammond added.

Smoking “natural” cigarettes is not a way to reduce harm, Pearson said, “inhaling burnt tobacco is harmful whether it’s organic, additive-free, or natural, it doesn’t matter.”

The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company had no comment on the study.

SOURCE: Tobacco Control, online December 6, 2016.
Copyright 2016 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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