For decades, cigarette makers have been advertising their products as "natural" or "additive-free" — one of the few ways to boost the appeal of an item sold with cancer warnings on the box. The government is now taking action against these claims.
On Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to the makers of Winston, Natural American Spirit, and Sherman's cigarettes, saying their marketing suggests that they are less risky than other tobacco products. Companies that want to advertise like that must first submit an application with scientific evidence supporting such claims to the FDA.
The three companies must respond to the FDA's warning letters within 15 working days either explaining how they will remedy the violation or proving that they are not violating the law.
Cigarette sales in the U.S. have been declining for years — nearly 264 billion cigarettes were sold last year, a roughly 3.3% decrease from 2013.
But Natural American Spirit, like many products with the "natural" label, has been growing. One analyst told the Winston-Salem Journal earlier this year that the brand "has long runway for double-digit growth in [the] U.S. and international and remains a very attractive asset."
Tobacco companies have used similar messaging for years — Nat Sherman has claimed to use "100% pure and natural tobacco" since 1930, according to Stanford University research — but this is the first time the FDA is pursuing regulatory action against "additive-free" or "natural" claims on tobacco products.
"The FDA's job is to ensure tobacco products are not marketed in a way that leads consumers to believe cigarettes with descriptors like 'additive-free' and 'natural' pose fewer health risks than other cigarettes, unless the claims have been scientifically supported," said Mitch Zeller, J.D., director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, in a press release.
The FDA classifies tobacco products that claim to be safer as "modified risk tobacco products," and to date, it has not approved any application. To be fair, few have applied.
There is only one set of applications currently under FDA review submitted by Swedish Match North America for 10 snus smokeless tobacco products — this is the first application the FDA has accepted for scientific review.