The commission has rescinded guidance it issued 42 years ago, saying the test method is flawed. It also said the resulting marketing touting tar and nicotine levels could cause consumers to believe that lighter cigarettes were safer.
As a result, future advertising that lists tar levels for cigarettes won't be able to use terms such as "by FTC method."
"Our action today ensures that tobacco companies may not wrap their misleading tar and nicotine ratings in a cloak of government sponsorship," said Commissioner Jon Leibowitz. "Simply put, the FTC will not be a smokescreen for tobacco companies' shameful marketing practices."
The commission rescinded the guidance by a 4-0 vote.
Under the current system, cigarettes with a tar rate above 15 milligrams per cigarette are commonly referred to by the industry as "full flavor." Cigarettes with a tar rating of less than 15 milligrams are referred to as "low" or "light." Cigarettes with a tar rate below 6 are described as "ultra low" or "ultra light."
The National Cancer Institute found that changes in cigarette design reduced the amount of tar and nicotine measured by smoking machines using the Cambridge Filter Method. However, there was no evidence those changes reduced disease for smokers. The machine doesn't take into account the way smokers adjust their behavior, such as taking more or deeper puffs to maintain nicotine levels.
"The most important aspect of this decision is that it says to consumers that tobacco industry claims relating to tar and nicotine are at best flawed and most likely misleading," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The commission said it originally believed in the 1960s that giving consumers uniform, standardized information about tar and nicotine yields of cigarettes would help them make informed decisions about cigarettes. At the time, most public health officials believed that reducing the amount of tar in a cigarette could reduce a smoker's risk of lung cancer. However, that premise is no longer valid.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced legislation this year that would prohibit companies from making claims based on data derived from the FTC's testing method, but the bill did not make it to the full Senate for a vote.