‘Organic,’ ‘Natural’ cigarettes are similar to, if not worse than, other brands, UMN study finds

The study found Natural American cigarettes, which have been branded as “organic,” contain the same or higher levels of nicotine than other brands.


Illustrated by Morgan La Casse

Gwiwon Jason Nam

A recent study conducted by a University of Minnesota-based research collaboration aimed to help correct the misconception that certain cigarettes are somehow healthier than other brands.

The research collaboration, led by Irina Stepanov, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and a member of the Masonic Cancer Center, analyzed the tobacco used in Natural American Spirit cigarettes and in the smoke they produce. Although American Spirit cigarettes have been marketed as made from “organic” or “natural” tobacco and are “100% additive-free,” research showed the level of toxicants are mostly comparable to other commercial cigarettes.

“Our goal was to conduct this comprehensive chemical analysis of these cigarettes, analyze tobacco that is inside of the cigarettes and also smoke by using a smoking machine,” Stepanov said.

In addition, some key cigarette components, like nicotine, are more potent in American Spirit cigarettes than those typically present in other brands. This result implies that they may be more addictive, according to the study.

“The marketing of [American Spirit] cigarettes can mislead the consumer that this brand is less harmful,” said Pat McKone, senior director of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest.

The researchers cite other studies showing that smokers perceive American Spirit cigarettes as being less harmful than other brands, which is why some consumers chose them.

“Years ago, [I talked] to American Spirits smokers who clearly believed their cigarettes were better or healthier in some way than other cigarettes,” said Darlene Huang, a public health attorney at Georgetown Law’s O’Neil Institute for National and Global Health Law and one of the research team members.

Huang said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter back in 2015 that then resulted in an agreement in 2017, which then addressed some of the problems with American Spirit’s advertising.

However, words such as “natural,” “organic” and “tobacco and water” are still used in the brand’s name, packaging and/or advertising, which contributes to the misconception of the safety of American Spirit cigarettes, according to the research.

“The Surgeon General and the American Lung Association agree that there is no safe level of smoking. Many of the harmful chemicals themselves are part of the tobacco leaves, including nicotine,” McKone said.

The study analyzed 13 varieties of American Spirit cigarettes available on the market, which is unique as previous studies would only examine one or two. The researchers then compared the NAS results to popular cigarette brands like Marlboro and Camel.

Researchers concluded that consumer education and additional regulatory measures are needed to address the misconceptions that American Spirit cigarettes are safer than other commercial cigarette brands.

“This paper provides scientific data that regulatory agencies can use so they can provide the corrective regulations about the labeling and marketing of tobacco products,” said Aleksandra Alcheva, a School of Public Health graduate student and study co-author.

The FDA could use this evidence as a basis for arguing the makers of American Spirit cigarettes are making unauthorized claims and misleading product representations, according to Huang. She also said the research showed that further FDA action is needed.