The Curious Case of the Light Cigarette

This article originally appeared on BU ResearchPhoto by Michael D. Spencer

In the mid-1960s, a new type of cigarette appeared in America. Manufacturers called them “lights,” and advertised that more sophisticated filters, highly porous paper, and new tobacco blends reduced the tar and nicotine that smokers inhaled. The “lights” were the tobacco companies’ answer to public concern about the link between smoking and lung cancer. They pitched their new product to health-conscious smokers and printed test results—total milligrams of tar and nicotine—right on the pack. The light cigarettes were a hit, with sales surpassing regular cigarettes in the early 1980s.

But a funny thing happened over those decades. While smokers may have craved a healthier cigarette, they also craved full flavor and a strong nicotine “kick,” says Stine Grodal, an assistant professor of strategy and innovation at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who published an empirical study of light cigarettes in the journal American Sociological Review in February 2015. Over time, she says, many consumers stopped scrutinizing the tiny print on the packages, assuming that light cigarettes were healthier than “full” cigarettes and choosing the brand with the best flavor and kick. To compete for customers, manufacturers slowly pushed the amount of tar and nicotine in light cigarettes upward, with average tar increasing seven percent between 1964 and 1993, and nicotine increasing 74 percent. How did the tobacco industry get away with it? The answer, says Grodal, lies in a curious sociological phenomenon called “taken-for-grantedness.”

Taken-for-grantedness is just what it sounds like: the idea that, over time, many ideas go from outrageous to ordinary. When scientists first began to patent genetically modified organisms, for example, the public reacted with concern and dismay. “Then, over time, patenting just became a thing that you did if you were a scientist,” she says. “If you wanted to have a career in science, you would both publish and patent. It became a part of the way you showed your status, and it was not contested at all. It became taken for granted.”

While taken-for-grantedness is a common area of research in institutional theory—the study of how institutions, concepts, and meaning evolve over time—scientists haven’t used it much to examine business strategy. Grodal and her co-author, Greta Hsu of the University of California, Davis, decided to try that tactic after Grodal read Allan Brandt’s book The Cigarette Century and learned about the enormous data available on the cigarette industry. “It’s very difficult to know what goes on inside businesses because the documents are secret,” she says. “But here was a case in which a lot of the internal documents had been revealed through the lawsuits, so we could have insight on how businesses function that we normally don’t have.”

To make sense of the industry documents, Grodal and Hsu had to first understand when American consumers started assuming that light cigarettes were healthier than regular cigarettes and stopped squinting at the fine print on the packs. To do this, they looked for references to light cigarettes in four major media outlets: the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Over time, as the public became more familiar with light cigarettes, journalists described the cigarettes’ features less often and less explicitly. Grodal says that this declining description serves as a good proxy for taken-for-grantedness, because it reflects the public’s growing understanding and acceptance of light cigarettes. She found that public attention to the light cigarettes’ nicotine content decreased quickly but people paid closer attention to “tar”—an imprecise mixture of particles and chemicals, some of which were carcinogenic.

“People’s attention was very much on tar,” she says. “Tar was the bad thing, they thought. However, the cigarette producers were more concerned about nicotine, because they knew people smoked because of nicotine.”

According to internal documents unearthed by Grodal and Hsu, the cigarette companies recognized these consumer trends and used them to their advantage, raising nicotine levels in their light cigarettes to give them more kick and, to a much lesser extent, raising levels of tar to give them more flavor. Because the “light” label wasn’t regulated, they got away with it.

“They could create whatever and call it ‘light,’” says Grodal. “It was all based on ‘Does the consumer accept this as ‘light?’ There was a blurring of that boundary. Some ‘full’ cigarettes had lower tar and nicotine than some that were labeled ‘light.’” This is no longer the case: in 2010, a law went into effect banning tobacco manufacturers from labeling cigarettes as “light,” “low,” or “mild.”

What does taken-for-grantedness mean for consumers today? While some product labels, like “very low sodium” or “cholesterol-free” are tightly regulated by the FDA, other terms and labels like “healthy” or “natural” are more vague. The take-home message, says Grodal, is to “put on your skeptical hat sometimes, not just with the shopping cart but also in other decisions.”

“We make a lot of choices based on people’s claims, whether it’s a service or a product,” she says. “Sometimes it just pays to be a little more aware, to stop and think, ‘what do they mean when they say that?’”

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