The “low tar” controversy is another stick used to beat the industry, conflating a number of issues. It is said that tobacco companies wilfully manipulated tar levels to give the impression of safety while knowing that there was no differential risk. It is because of the perception that lower tar equates to lower risk that “descriptors” (e.g. Light, Mild) have subsequently been banned.

In 1953 a US magazine, Consumer Reports, listed tar yields for the most popular cigarette brands as measured by an independent laboratory. The league table became a biannual feature and in 1955 the FTC issued guidelines to manufacturers about the claims which could be made about tar yields. In 1957 Readers Digest reported that filtration did not necessarily reduce tar yields with unfiltered Camel cigarettes delivering less tar than filtered Winston. In 1958 the FTC held a two day conference aimed at producing a single test for measuring tar, but also requiring a voluntary agreement that forbade the companies from making any health claim related to tar yields.

Although things developed more slowly in the UK, where there was scepticism about the value of tar yields to the health debate, by 1971 the RCP recommended “the tar and nicotine content of all marketed brands of cigarettes should be published and a public statement made on the possible effects of smoking them”. In addition the RCP recommended an upper limit on tar and nicotine levels, while those whom continued to smoke should be encouraged to smoke fewer cigarettes; to inhale less; to smoke less of each cigarette; to take the cigarette out of the mouth between puffs; and to smoke brands with low nicotine and tar content. The Government not only ultimately adopted the low tar approach, running adverts as late as 1981 recommending smokers move to lower tar product, but through the 1970s entered voluntary agreements aimed at reducing tar levels across the product range. As we know now, smokers compensate for the lower nicotine delivery of “lighter” cigarettes by inhaling more deeply, and therefore there is no differential risk.

Lower tar was not the only approach to modifying risk pursued. Many recognisable brands were initially introduced to “deal with the health issue”. Liggett & Myers saw early success with its “Lark” brand because of its cellulose filters while “L&M” was launched with the slogan “THIS IS IT. L&M filters are just what the doctor ordered”; what happened to the “Epic” product which L&M developed using palladium in the filter is unclear; Lorillard’s “Kent” brand was launched in the US with a “micronite” filter which unfortunately used asbestos; “Winston” was RJR’s first ever filtered cigarette, but to counter concerns that the filter would deaden the taste of the product, the tar and nicotine content was increased; Brown & Williamson introduced “Fact” which had several compounds removed; RJR raised the bar with “Premier”, the first heat-not-burn product; B&W countered with “Eclipse” which had “All of the taste … Less of the toxins”.

In general the products claiming to be “safer” were commercial failures (Winston being the notable exception, its failure would come subsequently when filtered cigarettes were eclipsed by “lighter” cigarettes). In part this was because of that change in perspective from the “public health” lobby which had decided that there was simply no safe level of smoking. In the US, the journal Cancer Research would not carry an article on L&M’s Epic for fear that it would encourage smoking and when RJR was trying to introduce its improved Premier product, Eclipse, in 2000 the American Cancer Society was at the forefront of demands that the product be removed from the market.