Light Cigarettes Are Not Safer

ByMelinda T. Willis

Nov. 27, 2001 -- Smokers who have switched to light or low-tar cigarettes with the belief that they are safer than regular cigarettes have been mistaken, says a new report from the National Cancer Institute.

The report, titled Risks Associated with Smoking Cigarettes with Low Tar Machine-Measured Yields of Tar and Nicotine, is the 13th in a series of comprehensive reports on Smoking and Tobacco Control, which began in 1991.

"This report is one that has brought together scientists of various disciplines and has concluded that there are significant health risks from switching to low-tar, light cigarettes," says Scott Leischow, chief of the National Cancer Institute Tobacco Control Research Branch.

Light cigarettes have been around for 20 years and have led some people to believe that they are healthier alternatives to regular cigarettes. And who wouldn't want to inhale less tar when given the opportunity?

"Many people feel that if they are not able to quit smoking but are concerned about their health, low-tar cigarettes are a compromise," says Dr. Neal L. Benowitz, professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco and co-scientific editor of the report that challenges this notion.

Smoking is the number one preventable cause of premature death in the United States, responsible for more than 400,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tobacco Information and Prevention Source.

Removing Misconceptions

According to Benowitz, light cigarettes are made of the same substances as their full tar brethren. The distinguishing factor is the engineering.

Low-tar cigarettes can be made with porous paper and more loosely packed tobacco in an effort to reduce tar intake, but past research has shown that people are easily able to circumvent such designs.

"There are actually four different ways that smokers can make a low yield cigarette higher yield," says Benowitz, who published one of the first papers on the subject in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1983.

Smokers can, for example, take more puffs per cigarette, take bigger or deeper drags, and they can increase the number of cigarettes they smoke each day.

Additionally, "Some cigarettes have little holes in the filters and people will consciously or unconsciously cover those holes [with their mouths] and as a result get more tar and nicotine delivered to their bodies," says Leischow.

"People are very adept at getting the nicotine that they're addicted to and as a result they also get the harmful substances as well," he adds.

The Safest Cigarette

"We do not imply in our marketing, and smokers should not assume, that "light" or "ultra light" brands are "safe," or are "safer" than full-flavor brands," states Brendan McCormick, a spokesperson for leading cigarette maker Philip Morris. "[The development of low-tar cigarettes is] related to consumer taste preferences."

Experts say the take home message of the National Cancer Institute report is that smokers who make the switch to low-tar or light cigarettes should not be fooled into thinking that they are making a safer choice.

"The focus of the [report] primarily is the public and what we can do to improve public health," asserts Leischow. "One of the key and critical recommendations is that the best way to reduce risk is to quit smoking."

In other words, the safest cigarette is still the one that is never smoked.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events