The real myth of light cigarettes

| Senior Forum Editor

So the U.S. government finally won: So-called “light” cigarettes can no longer be marketed as such to the public. As with all legislation, it will take an indeterminable amount of time to actually come into effect, which leaves room for questioning: Why exactly is it illegal to market light cigarettes?

At first glance, the case for banning light cigarette advertising has a lot of rationale going for it: Light cigarettes are no safer than regular cigarettes, and the lower levels of tar and nicotine just lead people to smoke several cigarettes instead of just one—people smoke until their nicotine cravings are taken care of, regardless of how many squares it takes. So the U.S. government triumphantly declares that a light cigarette does not entail a safe cigarette, and so they should be banned.

The flaw in this line of reasoning, however, is that people really don’t smoke light cigarettes because of a perceived healthier effect—they smoke light cigarettes because, well, they’re lighter. So-called “full-flavor” cigarettes are too harsh for most people, and a mellower buzz is obtained from a softer nicotine spike. To smoke a pack of Ultra Lights and to smoke a pack of Reds is to undergo a qualitatively different experience, and this is why light cigarettes remain popular: People simply prefer them.

And here is where the government got it wrong: Smokers aren’t as naïve and stupid as the government takes them for. Very few smokers will stubbornly argue that cigarettes are safe, or even “not that bad for you.” In fact, most smokers acknowledge the harmful health effects of cigarettes, and smoke them anyway; after all, they’re addicted. Likewise, people don’t choose to smoke cigarettes because of any perceived health benefits associated with light cigarettes, but because they prefer having a less concentrated and strong smoke. Nicotine in high levels can cause nausea, and too much smoke at once can cause excessive coughing and marked discomfort—and the government has no right to prevent people from smoking cigarettes in a manner that is most comfortable and pleasing to them.

Of course, the government is not banning light cigarettes, but the marketing of light cigarettes. This won’t actually do anything—cigarette types are color-coded, so even if manufacturers are forced to remove the “light” label from packs, people are still going to ask for the light blue Camels, the yellow American Spirits and the weird bronze-gold Marlboros. I can’t even remember the last time I heard someone purchase cigarettes without referencing the box color. However, in this case, we should be glad that the government messed up to the degree that they did: We have a right to smoke cigarettes (at least off-campus come next school year), light or otherwise.  For now, we’ll leave it as a moral victory.

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