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Agreement on American Spirit cigarettes fails to protect public from misleading claims

An agreement reached between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, the maker of Natural American Spirit cigarettes, permits the company to continue using deceptive health-related claims and imagery that contribute to the widespread misperception that these cigarettes are less dangerous.

The agreement, reached in January, requires the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company to remove the terms "additive-free" and "natural" from its product labels, advertising and promotional materials — however it can continue to use "Natural" as part of its brand name. The agreement also includes a path to use the statement "Tobacco Ingredients: Tobacco and Water," which would continue the deception that because of the lack of additives, these products are safer than other cigarettes. The agreement fails to address the use of "organic," another misleading term.

This agreement does little to address those widespread and highly dangerous misperceptions

In August 2015, the FDA issued a warning to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, owned by R.J. Reynolds, stating that the claims "natural" and "additive-free" on its product labeling constitute a reduced-harm claim. These claims are prohibited without FDA approval under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009.

The recent agreement, which is labeled "confidential — not for public disclosure," came to light as part of a public court filing by Santa Fe Tobacco Company seeking dismissal of a number of class-action consumer fraud cases, which have been consolidated and are pending in the U.S. District Court in Santa Fe, N.M. In addition, Breathe DC filed a consumer fraud lawsuit last November in the D.C. Superior Court.

Truth Initiative®, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and 26 other public health groups had also previously urged the FDA to take enforcement action against the reduced-risk claims displayed on Natural American Spirit cigarettes.

"This FDA/Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company agreement is a gift to the tobacco industry, permitting R.J. Reynolds to continue the highly misleading and, very possibly, legally fraudulent marketing and labeling of American Spirit cigarettes," said Robin Koval, CEO and President of Truth Initiative. "Our research shows that a majority of Natural American Spirit smokers incorrectly believe that their cigarettes are safer than other cigarettes. The truth is that they are just as dangerous as any other cigarette."

Nearly 64 percent of Natural American Spirit smokers inaccurately believe these cigarettes are less harmful, compared to 8.3 percent of smokers of other brands who believe that their cigarettes are less harmful. Smokers of Natural American Spirit cigarettes were over 22 times more likely to believe their brand was less harmful that other cigarette brands, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the Schroeder Institute® for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at Truth Initiative. The study confirmed earlier research from Truth Initiative that American Spirit pack descriptors and other features influence harm perceptions among U.S. adults.

"This agreement does little to address those widespread and highly dangerous misperceptions," Koval said. "The only way to protect consumers is for the FDA to immediately go back to the drawing board to ensure that R.J. Reynolds and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company can no longer mislead consumers about the safety of their product."