Philip Morris packaging now in FDA compliance

Pale-blue “FDA Compliant” signs with big, red check marks are being taken off machines at Philip Morris USA’s plant in South Richmond.

Philip Morris USA had been phasing in new packaging that complies with a U.S. Food and Drug Administration ban on terms like “light” or “mild” on cigarettes. The ban takes effect June 22.

Last week, the company ran its last “Lights,” “Ultra Lights” and “Milds” packages through the giant plant, which produces about 150 million packs of cigarettes a week.

The signs were meant to remind workers to double-check that they were loading cigarettes into packages that comply with the FDA rule, said Eric Schardt, director of cigarette manufacturing.

Now that the company is no longer labeling cigarettes as light or mild, the signs aren’t needed. All the packaging material at the plant now complies with the FDA rule.

The new packs are starting to filter into stores — in the Richmond area, menthol-flavored Marlboro varieties have been the first to arrive.

They’re a special challenge — nonmenthol Marlboros will keep their old colors, so smokers who buy will still be able to recognize their brand by the packs’ gold color, as will those who use with their silver-colored packs.

Menthol brands come in green packs, and now that the “Lights” or “Ultra Lights” labels are gone, the only way to tell them apart from each other is the color of the tear-tape on the cellophane wrapper.

“The reasons for eliminating the terms ‘light’ and ‘low-tar’ was because it misled the public into thinking those products are safer,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Whether the elimination of those descriptors will have any impact on smoker habits and beliefs is uncertain.

“It is about 30 years too late — the barn door has already busted open,” said Dr. Alan Blum, director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society at the University of Alabama. “The misleading nature of those terms was there the day they came into being.”

Blum doesn’t think the rules will hurt Philip Morris.

“Now they are imprinting on consumers’ minds: You don’t have to read the words anymore — now you just look at the colors.”

Myers said the industry’s shift to color-coded packaging may be an important test for the FDA to ensure that both the “letter and the spirit” of the law are followed.

“To the extent that the color-coding leaves consumers with the continued impression that certain products deliver fewer toxins and are less hazardous, it violates the prohibition on implicit as well as explicit health messages,” he said.

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