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Why American Spirit cigarettes could be especially dangerous

Some tobacco brands, such as Natural American Spirit (often referred to simply as American Spirit), advertise their products with descriptors that may be misleading.  

After the tobacco industry experienced a major legal defeat in 2006, they were finally forced to tell the truth about the deceptive marketing tactics used to sell some types of cigarettes. These tactics include using terms such as “low tar,” “light,” “ultra light,” and “mild” to convince customers that certain cigarettes are less harmful. Although the law now prohibits the tobacco industry from using these terms, brands like American Spirit are still misleading consumers with descriptors like “natural,” “organic,” and “additive-free,” causing some consumers to believe they are choosing a “healthier” brand of tobacco. 

Research shows that these claims do mislead consumers. For example, nearly 64% of American Spirit smokers inaccurately believe the cigarettes are less harmful than other brands compared with 8.3% of smokers of other brands, according to a Truth Initiative study published in Tobacco Control.  

“The serious risk of this misconception is that millions of smokers will continue to smoke cigarettes they falsely believe are less harmful instead of quitting smoking,” write the authors in the opening paper of a Tobacco Regulatory Science special issue on the topic, co-authored by Truth Initiative Schroeder Institute® Chief Research Officer Barbara Schillo. 

This paper provides “a consistent message that cigarette pack design elements and descriptors continue to influence smokers,” the authors write.  

Here’s a look at its main findings. 

American Spirit may be more addictive than other brands

Are American Spirit cigarettes more addictive than other cigarettes?

American Spirit cigarettes may be more addictive than other cigarettes and many varieties of the brand have “high levels of nicotine,” according to one study on the issue. After analyzing the physical characteristics and chemicals in the smoke and tobacco filler in 13 varieties of American Spirit cigarettes, researchers found that American Spirit cigarettes generally have more tobacco filler, and, as a result, produce a higher number of puffs — which may expose the brand’s smokers to more tobacco chemicals per cigarette than smokers of other brands. 

Another study measured exposure of harmful or potentially harmful ingredients in American Spirit smokers and in smokers of four other cigarette brands. The results show American Spirit smokers had a higher exposure to nicotine per cigarette smoked compared with other brands, which suggested a “greater addictive potential.” 

American Spirit ads convey the cigarettes as less harmful and non-addictive

Are American Spirit Cigarette ads allowed to say they are less harmful?

American Spirit launched a new campaign in 2017 featuring the phrases “Real. Simple. Different.” and “Tobacco Ingredients: Tobacco & Water” after being required to remove the terms "additive-free" and "natural" from its labels and promotional materials by the Food and Drug Administration. (The company was allowed to keep “natural” in its brand name.) 

Previous research found that terms like “Made with Organic Tobacco,” “100% Additive-Free” and “100% U.S. Grown Tobacco,” led 50-60% of U.S. adults to incorrectly believe that American Spirit cigarettes are less harmful than a comparison cigarette pack. 

American Spirit Real Simple Different Ad

The influence of American Spirit descriptors is further shown in a study that surveyed 176 youth who either viewed an American Spirit ad with the old descriptors “natural” and “additive-free” or an ad for another cigarette brand to see what they found most memorable. The only participants who mentioned addiction were those who viewed American Spirit ads, and nearly all who did mention addiction incorrectly said that the cigarettes were not addictive.

The use of American Indian images and text portray a “natural” look

Does the use of American Indian images and text portray a “natural” look in American Spirit Cigarettes?

The phrases “natural,” “organic” and “tobacco and water,” paired with images and motifs related to American Indian culture, are just a few of the tactics American Spirit employs to implicitly communicate the “naturalness” of its products. American Spirit has no affiliation with any American Indian or Alaska Native tribes, however its depiction of an American Indian warrior, peace pipe, and thunderbird on its cigarette packaging caused 65% of participants in a study to believe the brand had tribal affiliations, which was associated with perceptions of decreased harm and greater intentions to purchase. 

Other research from the special issue finds that the design of American Spirit packs — including the terms and images — creates misperceptions among adults that the brand is owned by American Indians and/or grown by tribes and is therefore “healthier and more desirable.”