Introduction: Many governments around the world have banned the use of misleading cigarette descriptors such as "light" and "mild" because the cigarettes so labeled were found not to reduce smokers' health risks. However, underlying cigarette design features, which are retained in many brands, likely contribute to ongoing belief that these cigarettes are less harmful by producing perceptions of lightness/smoothness through lighter taste and reduced harshness and irritation.
Methods: Participants (N = 320) were recruited from the International Tobacco Control U.S. Survey conducted in 2009 and 2010, when they answered questions about smoking behavior, attitudes and beliefs about tobacco products, and key mediators and moderators of tobacco use behaviors. Participants also submitted an unopened pack of their usual brand of cigarettes for analysis using established methods.
Results: Own-brand filter ventilation level (M 29%, range 0%-71%) was consistently associated with perceived lightness (p < .001) and smoothness (p = .005) of own brand. Those whose brand bore a light/mild label (55% of participants) were more likely to report their cigarettes were lighter [71.9% vs. 41.9%; χ(2)(2) = 38.1, p < .001] and smoother than other brands [75.5% vs. 68.7%; χ(2)(2) = 7.8, p = .020].
Conclusion: Product design features, particularly filter ventilation, influence smokers' beliefs about product attributes such as lightness and smoothness, independent of package labels. Regulation of cigarette design features such as filter ventilation should be considered as a complement to removal of misleading terms in order to reduce smokers' misperceptions regarding product risks.