Duty-free cigarettes 'have higher tar levels'

Smokers and an industry under fire: Travellers may be unaware of higher nicotine levels while further bans aim to encourage kicking the habit
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The Independent Online
CELIA HALL

Medical Editor

Thousands of unsuspecting British holiday makers and travellers returning from Europe are buying duty-free cigarettes unaware that the tar and nicotine counts are higher than packs bought in the UK.

While they believe they are buying cigarettes identical to their regular brand, tar content, the main cancer causing agent in cigarettes, can be 3mg higher on the duty-free cigarettes.

Benson & Hedges Special Filter cigarettes in the gold pack have 12 mg of tar if bought in the UK but 15mg when bought, for instance, on a tourist flight from Spain. The nicotine counts were 0.9mg for UK and 1.3mg duty- free. Silk Cut, Marlboro and Camel Lights bought in duty-free shops by air and sea travellers from France and Spain also had higher tar and nicotine counts.

Reasons for the differences vary from different manufacturers of the "same" product to older stock and different countries of origin.

There is nothing to stop manufacturers producing cigarettes with higher tar and nicotine contents in almost identical packs as long as they comply with the EU standard which prohibits cigarettes with tar content more than 15mg.

Karen Williams, campaigns director of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said that the tar and nicotine differences were an example of the tobacco industry's determination to "keep smokers hooked".

"There are no safe tar levels in cigarettes but basically the higher the tar the greater danger to health. It is nicotine which is addictive and the more nicotine there is in a cigarette the greater the chance there is of reinforcing the habit and making it harder to stop."

She said that the nicotine content tended to rise and fall in line with the tar content. "There is a serious lack of information about tobacco products and this only proves again that the tobacco industry will not give consumers information unless it is forced to do so by Government."

Nick Brown, Labour health spokesman said: "Labour policy on tobacco is clear cut. Messages about smoking must be easily understood. The state has a duty to put all this information bluntly in front of the public."

While Gallaghers manufacture Benson & Hedges cigarettes in Europe and the UK, BAT manufacture the same brand for UK duty-free market. "It goes back to the 1950s when Benson & Hedges was sold," a Gallaghers spokesman said.

BAT said they had no response as to why their duty-free cigarettes where higher in tar and nicotine to the cigarettes sold in the UK since they were, in fact, different products. The spokeswoman said: "It must be baffling for the customer who might not be aware they are made by different companies."

Silk Cut - 5mg tar and 0.5 mg nicotine when bought in the UK and 7mg tar and 0.7 mg nicotine in a duty-free purchase - is also made by Gallaghers for both the duty-free and the UK markets.

The spokesman explained the reason for the difference. "In March we introduced a lower tar content cigarette in the UK coming down from 7mg to 5mg. This was in response to consumer demand.

"The 7mg version will be replaced with the 5mg all over Europe and duty- free, except in Greece. But there are still stocks of 7mg cigarettes."

By the end of 1997, the EU has ruled that 12mg of tar will be the permissable highest level. A spokesman for the Department of Health said yesterday: "These differences may happen provided that they do not exceed the legal maximum tar content which is set by the EU. Tobacco companies are at liberty to produce different strengths in different countries under the same packaging."

Smoking cigarettes is widely acknowledged to be the main cause of lung cancer. The more cigarettes smoked per day, and the lower the age at which smoking started, the greater the risk of contracting the disease.

Lung cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths among men, and the second most common in women.

It is also a relatively difficult cancer to treat: fewer than 10 per cent of lung cancer patients survive for five years after the disease is diagnosed.

In 1993, there were 35,000 deaths from the disease in England and Wales. (GRAPHIC OMITTED)

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