Many smokers choose “low-tar,” “mild,” “light,” or “ultra-light” cigarettes because they think that these cigarettes may be less harmful to their health than “regular” or “full-flavor” cigarettes. Although smoke from light cigarettes may feel smoother and lighter on the throat and chest, light cigarettes are not healthier than regular cigarettes. The truth is that light cigarettes do not reduce the health risks of smoking. The only way to reduce a smoker’s risk, and the risk to others, is to stop smoking completely.
What about the lower tar and nicotine numbers on light and ultra-light cigarette packs and in ads for these products?
These numbers come from smoking machines, which “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, filter vents are placed just millimeters from where smokers put their lips or fingers when smoking. As a result, many smokers block the vents—which actually turns the light cigarette into a regular cigarette.
Some cigarette makers increased the length of the paper wrap covering the outside of the cigarette filter, which decreases the number of puffs that occur during the machine test. Although tobacco under the wrap is still available to the smoker, this tobacco is not burned during the machine test. The result is that the machine measures less tar and nicotine levels than is available to the smoker.
Because smokers, 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.
What is the scientific evidence about the health effects of light cigarettes?
The Federal Government’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) has concluded that light cigarettes provide no benefit to smokers’ health.
According to the NCI monograph Risks Associated with Smoking Cigarettes with Low Machine-Measured Yields of Tar and Nicotine, 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.
Researchers also found that the strategies used by the tobacco industry to advertise and promote light cigarettes are intended to reassure smokers, to discourage them from quitting, and to lead consumers to perceive filtered and light cigarettes as safer alternatives to regular cigarettes.