Many smokers choose "low-tar," "mild," or "light" cigarettes because they think that light cigarettes may be less harmful to their health than "regular" or "full-flavor" cigarettes.
After all, the smoke from light cigarettes feels smoother and lighter on the throat and chest—so lights must be healthier than regulars, right? Wrong.
The truth is that light cigarettes do not reduce the health risks of smoking. The only way to reduce your risk, and the risk to others around you, is to stop smoking completely.
What about the lower tar and nicotine numbers on light cigarette packs and in ads for lights?
These numbers come from smoking machines that "smoke" every brand of cigarettes exactly the same way.
These numbers do not really tell how much tar and nicotine a particular smoker may get because people do not smoke cigarettes the same way the machines do. And no two people smoke the same way.
How do light cigarettes trick the smoking machines?
Tobacco companies designed light cigarettes with tiny pinholes on the filters. These "filter vents" dilute cigarette smoke with air when light cigarettes are "puffed" on by smoking machines, causing the machines to measure artificially low tar and nicotine levels.
Many smokers do not know that their cigarette filters have vent holes. The filter vents are uncovered when cigarettes are smoked on smoking machines. However, without realizing it and because they cannot avoid it, many smokers block the tiny vent holes with their fingers or lips—which basically turns the light cigarette into a regular cigarette.
Because people, unlike machines, crave nicotine, they may inhale more deeply; take larger, more rapid, or more frequent puffs; or smoke a few extra cigarettes each day to get enough nicotine to satisfy their craving. This is called "compensating," and it means that smokers end up inhaling more tar, nicotine, and other harmful chemicals than the machine-based numbers suggest.
Cigarette makers can also make the paper wrapped around the tobacco of light cigarettes burn faster so that the smoking machines get in fewer puffs before the cigarettes burn down. The result is that the machine measures less tar and nicotine in the smoke of the cigarette.
What is the scientific evidence about the health effects of light cigarettes?
The Federal Government’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently concluded that light cigarettes provide no benefit to smokers’ health.*
According to the NCI report, people who switch to light cigarettes from regular cigarettes are likely to inhale the same amount of hazardous chemicals, and they remain at high risk for developing smoking-related cancers and other diseases.
There is also no evidence that switching to light or ultra-light cigarettes actually helps smokers quit.
What do tobacco companies say about the health effects of light cigarettes?
The tobacco industry’s own documents show that companies were well aware that smokers of light cigarettes compensate by taking bigger puffs.
Industry documents also show that the companies were aware early on of the difference between machine-measured yields of tar and nicotine and what the smoker actually inhales.
The NCI report concluded that strategies used by the tobacco industry to advertise and promote light cigarettes were intended to reassure smokers and to prevent them from quitting, and to lead consumers to perceive filtered and light cigarettes as safer alternatives to regular cigarettes.
What is the bottom line for smokers who want to protect their health?
There is no such thing as a safe cigarette. The only proven way to reduce your risk of smoking-related disease is to quit smoking completely.
Here’s good news: Smokers who quit before age 50 cut their risk of dying in half over the next 15 years compared with people who keep smoking.
Quitting also decreases your risk of lung cancer, heart attacks, stroke, and chronic lung disease.
Posted by the National Cancer Institute
Updated August 17, 2004
How can you quit smoking for your health—and for the ones you love?
For more information about smoking and advice on quitting, contact:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Cancer Institute
Mary Stolfa Cancer Foundation
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