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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - More and more nations are banning the words "light" and "mild" from cigarette packs, but this may not be enough to dispel smokers' misbeliefs that the products are safer, according to a study.
In the study, published in "Addiction," researchers found that after the UK, Australia and Canada banned the terms as deceptive, there was a dip in the number of people who mistakenly believed that cigarettes marketed as "light" or "mild" carried fewer health risks -- but the decline was only temporary.
"The findings from our study confirm our earlier work showing that merely removing the terms 'light' and 'mild' from cigarette packs is insufficient to change people's beliefs that those products are safer," said lead researcher Hua-Hie Yong, at the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.
To clear up misperceptions regarding the dangers of cigarettes, more steps are needed, Yong said in an email.
This week, U.S. health officials released graphic images that tobacco companies will be required to include on cigarette packages no later than September 2012. The images are of dead bodies, diseased lungs, rotting teeth and other complications of smoking and follow in the steps of other countries with similar regulations.
In 2003, the European Union and Brazil banned the terms "light" and "mild" from cigarette packaging, and other countries have since followed suit. A U.S. law that bars the words "light," "low tar" and "mild" from tobacco products went into effect almost exactly one year ago.
"Light" cigarettes deliver less nicotine and lower levels of toxic chemicals when the smoke is analyzed by a machine.
In real life, though, studies show that smokers inhale comparable amounts of nicotine and chemicals regardless of the brand -- and critics have long charged that tobacco products dubbed "light" or "mild" confuse people into thinking there are fewer risks.
For the study, Yong's team looked at results from international surveys done annually between 2002 and 2009 in Australia, Canada, the UK and the United States.
A total of 21,600 smokers were asked the extend to which they agreed with statements such as, "Light cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes."
Shortly after "light" bans went into effect, misperceptions about the cigarettes generally dipped in Australia, Canada and the UK. But the false beliefs began to creep back in within several years.
In the UK, which banned the terms in 2003, misperceptions remain persistently higher than in other countries, including the United States. On average, UK smokers had a higher level of agreement with statements extolling the advantages of light cigarettes over regular.
Yong said one reason could be a UK law of the same time period that forced tobacco makers to lower the tar "yield" in cigarettes, which may have reinforced the belief that lower tar means a safer cigarette.
Other experts said that no one step was enough to combat years of tobacco marketing and that a comprehensive plan was needed -- along with continuing public education.
Many smokers "continue to believe that some cigarettes are safer than others based on the fact that they taste 'milder' or it has a lower tar yield," Yong said.
"This false belief will keep them smoking instead of quitting." SOURCE: bit.ly/jjb6J0
Reporting by Amy Norton at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies