Communicating Tobacco Product Information to the Public

Micah L. Berman, M. Justin Byron, Natalie Hemmerich, Eric N. Lindblom, Allison J. Lazard, Ellen Peters, Noel T. Brewer


The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA) requires tobacco companies to disclose information about the harmful chemicals in their products to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The law requires FDA, in turn, to communicate this information to the public “in a format that is understandable and not misleading to a lay person.” But how should FDA comply with this requirement? What does it mean for information about complex chemicals to be “understandable and not misleading to a lay person”? These questions are not easy ones to answer. Disclosures about the amount of harmful chemicals (constituents) in different tobacco products may help to inform consumers, but may also conversely prompt consumers to reach incorrect or unsupported conclusions about products’ relative health risks.

This paper first analyzes FDA’s legal obligation to publish tobacco constituent information so that it is “understandable and not misleading to a layperson.” Second, it discusses how that legal analysis has guided scientific research examining how members of the public interpret messages regarding tobacco constituents. Lastly, this paper concludes with policy recommendations for FDA as it considers how to comply with the law’s constituent disclosure requirement while still furthering its overall objective of promoting public health.