Ultra-low tar lines ignite tobacco war

As the fight for market share in the ultra low-tar cigarette market flares up with the launch of Lambert & Butler Ultra (MW September 3), the tobacco industry is facing demands from pressure groups to justify labels such as “mild” and “light”. The European Commission is also considering a call for a reduction in tar levels.

These pressures, added to worries about the tobacco advertising ban, may have hastened the launch of Imperial Tobacco’s new brand.

Timing is crucial for the tobacco industry as it rushes to launch new brands and variants before the advertising ban comes into force. Rothmans launched its Winfield brand in the UK (MW July 16) only a month ago.

Imperial claims that it has spotted a gap in the tobacco market and that L&B Ultra will be the only low-priced ultra low-tar cigarette. The Ultra launch comes only months after the low-priced L&B King Size became the top-selling cigarette brand in UK retail outlets (MW July 16), overtaking Gallaher’s premium Benson & Hedges King Size.

Tar yields for the ultra-low sector register at 1mg per cigarette. Maximum tar levels are set by a European Union directive. On January 1, the maximum tar yield for cigarettes dropped from 15mg to 12mg, with a two-year transition period.

Ultra-low tar and low-priced cigarettes are capturing greater market share, with the value sector now accounting for about a third of the market.

John Carlisle, executive director, industry affairs at the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, says: “The trend is definitely towards low-tar levels.”

Priced at 2.99 for a pack of 20, L&B Ultra will take on Gallaher’s market leader Silk Cut Ultra, priced at about 3.42. One industry source says: “The ultra-low tar sector has been around for a long time. It had been dormant but over the past few years the sector has started to take off.”

Most cigarette brands are middle to low tar. Benson & Hedges King Size and L&B King Size have tar levels of 11mg to 12mg. Silk Cut and lights variants, including Marlboro Lights, have low tar levels of about 5mg.

The industry source adds: “All the health lobby’s statistics about cancer relate to the days when people smoked cigarettes with tar levels above 20mg. People are now smoking mild cigarettes and we won’t have new relevant statistics for another 30 years.”

The growth in the ultra-low tar sector is mainly down to Silk Cut Ultra, which had two per cent of the total cigarette market, according to ACNielsen figures for June 1998. Gallaher anticipated this growth when it launched an ad campaign for the brand, earlier this year, through M&C Saatchi.

Amanda Sandford, spokeswoman for Action on Smoking & Health (ASH), says: “It was launched just before January in a very cynical move to deter smokers from giving up.”

One of the executions used the slogan: “JAN One – What better time to move to 1mg.”

According to ACNielsen- MEAL, Silk Cult Ultra Low has spent 4.6m in the past year on advertising, with no spend on any other Silk Cut variant. By contrast the spend on L&B King Size and Menthol was 1.3m. In total, about 23m has been spent on cigarette advertising during the past year.

It is expected that there will be press advertising for L&B Ultra through Mustoe Merriman Herring Levy.

Clive Bates of ASH believes that the ultra-low tar brands appeal to the dissonant smoker who wants to give up. In effect, the ultra-low tar cigarette market could be said to be eating into the nicotine replacement therapy market.

He says: “These tar measurements and low tar branding are a complete con. They are making an implied health claim which is extremely damaging and misleading. It’s false and shouldn’t be allowed.”

ASH claims that some low tar smokers cover up the ventilation holes when smoking Silk Cult Ultra in order to get a greater nicotine fix. The group has sent a study into this to the European Commission, which is considering a range of restrictions on the tobacco industry.

The Commission has asked the EU’s Council of Ministers and the European Parliament to look at the definition of the description “light” or “low” tar tobacco products. The Commission says the “descriptions are undefined and may mislead consumers by understating the dangers to health of such products”. It is also looking at larger and more visible health warnings, as well as information on additives.

Carlisle says: “We expect some proposals to come forward on labelling of the content. In Europe this will be the next battle.”

But Bates adds: “The big issue is the tar directive and whether there will be change.” The maximum tar level of 12mg could be reduced to 8mg and a maximum nicotine content introduced.

The tobacco industry also faces the possibility of a Europe-wide ban on vending machines, restrictions on smoking in public places, and an increase in the minimum age for the purchase of cigarettes from 16 to 18.

But the UK Government may pre-empt many of these issues in its White Paper, which will also implement the tobacco advertising ban.

The European legislative battle over tar yield and labelling may take as long as the ten-year fight to introduce the advertising ban. Before then, other brands are likely to follow L&B into the ultra-low tar market.

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