The tar derby is the period in the 1950s and early 1960s marked by a rapid influx in both cigarette advertising focused on tar content measurements to differentiate cigarettes and brand introduction or repositioning focusing on filter technology. The period ended in 1959 after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman and several cigarette company presidents agreed to discontinue usage of tar or nicotine levels in advertisements.
Leading up to the derby
In 1950, the FTC responded to the trend in cigarette manufacturers’ advertising tactic of comparing health effects or tar and nicotine levels by issuing cease and desist orders for advertising campaigns using these. However, these orders did not cover newly introduced brands of cigarettes.
At the same time, three significant scientific articles were released, two in one issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association and a third in the British Medical Journal, which linked tobacco smoking to lung cancer.
A noticeable decline in per capita tobacco consumption helped stimulate companies to implement harm reduction technology in new brands of cigarettes, especially filters. Before the articles linking tobacco smoking and lung cancer were released, in 1950, filter cigarettes only accounted for 1-2% of the market. This statistic grew to 10% by 1954. Lorillard started the trend with their Kent cigarette. It was introduced in 1951 with a “micronite” filter made to block tar from entering the smoker’s body, using asbestos. Each major tobacco company followed suit with their own brands, such as R. J. Reynolds' Winstons and Ligget & Myers' L&Ms.
Companies began promoting their brands with claims that clearly positioned other cigarettes as dangerous to one’s health and overall sales continued to decline as market shares quickly shifted towards brands focusing on filtered products.
In 1953, the Presidents of the major cigarette manufacturers met in New York City to discuss a response to the scientific reports linking smoking and cancer and retained John Hill, a noted advertising guru of the time. This eventually led to a two-full-page advertisement placed in 448 newspapers, reaching a circulation of 43,245,000 in 258 cities, outlining the opinion of the newly formed Tobacco Industry Research Committee. This advertisement is known as A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.
Another round of FTC regulation in 1955 banned all references to "throat, larynx, lungs, nose or other parts of the body," or to "digestion, energy, nerves or doctors" for all brands, new and old. However, another loophole is left open with the stipulation that tar and nicotine claims were prohibited "when it has not been established by competent scientific proof ... that the claim is true, and if true, that such difference or differences are significant." This regulation leads to significant shifts in advertisements to focus on taste and pleasure for two years. Filter cigarettes continued to grow in popularity and the emphasis on taste and pleasure helped rebound industry wide sales.
The start of the great derby
In 1957, two years after the FTC's guidelines on cigarette advertisements were released, the Surgeon General issued the "Joint Report of Study Group on Smoking and Health.” The report stated, "It is clear that there is an increasing and consistent body of evidence that excessive cigarette smoking is one of the causative factors in lung cancer," which solidified the Surgeon General’s position on tobacco. During the same year, Reader’s Digest included tar and nicotine measurements in their magazine for the first time since the early 1950s.
July 1957 Consumer's Digest Tar Measurements
The measurements showed that tar and nicotine levels of filtered cigarettes were higher or close to the levels of former unfiltered cigarettes. Cigarette manufacturers acted quickly and used the objective third party information, to advertise and compete over lower tar and nicotine. The next month Kent was written about again in Reader's Digest for their improved filter which lowered their tar content in their king and regular filtered cigarettes to 23.4 mg and 19.7 mg respectively. These lower tar levels were accompanied by advertisements that boasted:
KENT with revolutionary NEW Micronite Filter gives you significantly better filtration . . . Significantly less tars and nicotine . . . Than any other leading filter brand.
Each company developed brands with lower tar and nicotine ratings or filters that eliminated more tar.
The 1958 issue of Consumer's Digest again exhibits the tar levels and shows the across the board decreases in tar levels for almost every cigarette measured.
July 1958 Consumer’s Digest Tar Measurements and Comparisons
|Brand||Size||Tar 1958 (mg)||Tar 1957 (mg)||% Change|
|Pall Mall||85 mm||37.1||38.6||-4%|
|Phillip Morris||80 mm||35.4||40.8||-13%|
|Cavalier||80 mm||31.1||42.8 was 85 mm||-27%|
|Phillip Morris||70 mm||28.9||35.3||-18%|
|Lucky Strike||70 mm||28.6||31.5||-9%|
|Old Gold Straights||80 mm||24.5||41.7 was 85 mm||-41%|
|Sano||70 mm||23.1||Not included||N/A|
|Old Gold Straights||70 mm||22.4||30.9||-28%|
Companies successfully reduced tar and nicotine in all brands as seen by the sales-weighted tar and nicotine content decreasing 40% between mid 1957 and the end of 1959.
Promotions of the Derby
During the course of the Tar Derby numerous companies launched new products or altered their existing products to gain position in tar ratings. Several companies used the tar ratings or noted tar reduction in their advertisements.
Brown & Williamson 1959: Life: New Life's exclusive Millecel Super Filter absorbs for more tar and nicotine than any other filter. Only new Life with pure tobacco taste filters best by far . . . To give you far less tar and nicotine.
Phillip Morris 1959: Parliament: The most important 1/4 inch in smoking today Parliament is not the only cigarette that does a good job of trapping nicotine and tar. But Parliament is the only leading high—filtration cigarette that recesses its filter 1/4 inch to prevent filter feedback on your lips and tongue.
Lorillard: Old Gold Straight: Naturally reduced in nicotine
The end of the Derby
The end of the tar derby in 1959 resulted from discussions between FTC Chairman Earl W. Kinter and several big tobacco company presidents. The parties came to an agreement to discontinue use of tar or nicotine levels in advertisements.
- "TOBACCO: End of the Tar Derby". Time. February 15, 1960.
- Calfee, John E. (June 1, 1997). "The Ghost of Cigarette Advertising Past". American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
- Wynder, Ernst L., and Evarts A. Graham. 1950. Tobacco Smoking as a Possible Etiologic Factor in Bronchiogenic Carcinoma: A Study of 684 Proved Cases. JAMA 143(4):334
- Levin, M. L.; Goldstein, H., and Gerhardt, P. R.: J. A. M. A. 143:336 [May 27] 1950
- Doll R, Hill AB (1950). "Smoking and carcinoma of the lung; preliminary report". BMJ ii (4682): 739–48
- "The one cigarette proved* significantly superior to all other leading filter brands KENT". Tobaccodocuments.org. 1957-09-15. Retrieved 2011-04-15.
- "SMOKE A LOT? Then think before you choose your brand". Tobaccodocuments.org. 1956-04-09. Retrieved 2011-04-15.
- "Less tars & More taste". Tobaccodocuments.org. Retrieved 2011-04-15.
- "A New Sales Champion In The Filter Field!". Tobaccodocuments.org. Retrieved 2011-04-15.
- "The most important 1/4 inch in smoking today". Tobaccodocuments.org. 1959-05-11. Retrieved 2011-04-15.