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Why Natural American Spirit cigarettes could be especially dangerous

The tobacco industry experienced a major legal defeat in 2006 when it was found to have systematically defrauded the American public with decades of false information, including the deceptive marketing of some types of cigarettes as less harmful than others with terms like “low tar,” “light,” “ultra light,” “mild” and “natural.”

Although the law now prohibits the tobacco industry from using these product descriptors, companies are still misleading consumers with marketing that suggests certain cigarettes, such as those from the Natural American Spirit brand, are natural, organic and additive-free, and therefore may be less risky.

“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® Vice President Barbara Schillo.

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. Previous research found the characteristics of American Spirit cigarette packs, including the descriptors “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.

The new research published in Tobacco Regulatory Science 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 of American Spirit cigarettes and five other cigarette brands, 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 the 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 product labels, advertising and promotional materials by the Food and Drug Administration. (The company was allowed to keep “natural” in its brand name.)

One study found the new ads still convey that American Spirit cigarettes are less harmful. Out of the 482 participants who viewed American Spirit ads with different combinations of the old and new terms, 26.1% of them surveyed believed the cigarettes were less harmful than others when the two newest phrases were used together.

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,” pictures of plants, farms and native imagery, like a thunderbird, and references to being environmentally friendly are just some tactics American Spirit relies on to “implicitly communicate naturalness,” said researchers who analyzed 244 ads between 2015-2018. The study notes that this is “particularly problematic” since research shows some of these methods contribute to perceptions of reduced harm.

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.”