Organic food may be a healthy choice but how about “organic” cigarettes? A study finds that many Americans incorrectly believe the advertising that claims Natural American Spirit “additive-free” cigarettes are healthier than other cigarettes, even though there is no scientific evidence to support the claims.
Penn Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science (TCORS) researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication found that current and former smokers do buy the claims. The researchers stressed that is no established science to corroborate these beliefs. Smoking any type of tobacco can cause lung cancer, emphysema and other diseases; organic or additive-free tobacco, the researchers point out, is still tobacco.
“Broadly speaking, the purpose of this study was to assess the effects of Natural American Spirit advertising,” said Stefanie Gratale, Annenberg doctoral student and lead author of the study. “We found that NAS (Natural American Spirit) advertisements lead people to believe that smoking organic tobacco or a cigarette with fewer additives is a healthier choice.”
The study found that the claims made in Natural American Spirit advertisements lead current and former smokers to believe the company offers a healthier product.
Cigarettes contain tobacco
While Natural American Spirit makes no specific health claims in its advertisements or on its packaging, it uses words like “organic” and “natural” to describe its product. As with food labeled with these words, consumers make assumptions about the quality and healthiness of a product marketed as “organic” or “all-natural.”
Senior author Joseph N. Cappella said that “these phrases and words can activate beliefs about the brand that are not specifically discussed in the ads themselves, ultimately misleading consumers.”
While other studies have been conducted about the marketing of Natural American Spirit cigarettes, this study is one of the first with a rigorous experimental design, allowing for evidence that shows a causal connection between NAS advertising and consumer beliefs, the researchers said.
In the study, the researchers presented current and former smokers with a variety of NAS advertisements and then asked them to answer questions about NAS cigarettes. A control group, which saw no advertisements, also answered questions about NAS cigarettes.
The participants who viewed NAS advertisements or claims from them held more erroneous beliefs about the healthiness and composition of NAS cigarettes than did participants who did not view NAS advertisements, regardless of whether the participant identified NAS as his or her preferred brand.
“We hope that this work contributes to the ongoing dialogue about policies that avoid misleading consumers,” Gratale says.
An agreement reached in January between NAS and the FDA requires NAS to cease using the terms “additive-free” and “natural” in its advertising. However, the company can continue using “Natural” in its brand name. In addition, the agreement does not address NAS’s use of the term “organic.”
If the aim of the agreement is to avoid misinformation about the health risks of NAS cigarettes in the minds of smokers, Gratale believes the new restrictions may not adequately achieve that goal.
“Should tobacco companies be allowed to use words like ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ in their advertising?” asks Gratale. “Our study indicates that doing so misleads consumers. Should there be policy in place that regulates advertisement wording to protect consumers?”
The study, “Influence of Natural American Spirit Advertising on Current and Former Smokers’ Perceptions and Intentions,” was recently published in Tobacco Control.