Are Light Cigarettes Safer for You?

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As of Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

Light cigarettes are not safer for you than regular cigarettes. However, tobacco companies used to be able to advertise certain types of cigarettes as "ultra-light," "mild," or "light." Light cigarettes are sometimes also called "low-tar" cigarettes.

Tobacco companies developed light cigarettes that were advertised as a healthier choice than "regular" or "full-flavor" cigarettes in the 1960s, asserting they contained less tar and less nicotine. The result was that consumers were led to believe that light cigarettes were safer than regular cigarettes.

People noticed that the smoke from light cigarettes did feel smoother and lighter on the throat and chest—it seemed true that light cigarettes must be healthier than regular cigarettes. But the truth is that light cigarettes are not safer.

What Is a Light Cigarette?

Light cigarettes were advertised as producing less tar when inhaled than "regular" cigarettes. Tar is the term used for the particulate matter in cigarette smoke, which contains carcinogens and other toxins that contribute to smoking-related health risks such as lung cancer.

The tobacco industry claimed that the tar yield of a full-flavor or regular cigarette is about 15 milligrams (mg) or more, while a light cigarette yields 8 to 14 mg. They claimed an ultra-light cigarette yields 7 mg of tar.

It is important to note that the tobacco industry itself decided on what characterized "ultra-light" and "light," and not a governing or regulatory body.

Machines that simulated smoking cigarettes were used to obtain the tar levels for ultra-light and light cigarettes, which is a problematic way to make these measurements as machine-smoked tar yield will usually be lower than the amount of tar inhaled by a person. Further, no two people smoke in the same way, so tar levels can and will vary quite a bit from one person to the next.

Features of Light Cigarettes

Cigarette manufacturers used several tactics to change the composition of a cigarette and classify it as a light cigarette—with some concerning results.

Cellulose Acetate

Cellulose acetate is the white cotton-like material that makes up the interior of the cigarette filter. Cellulose acetate filters are used in light cigarettes. Cigarette companies claimed the filters trapped some of the tar in the smoke to keep it from going into the lungs.  

While filters trap some of the tar in cigarette smoke, plenty of tar escapes the filter and is inhaled.  

Tar also floats in the air when someone exhales cigarette smoke, and it becomes part of secondhand smoke and thirdhand smoke.

Ventilated Holes

Light cigarettes have tiny, perforated holes in the filters. Cigarette companies claimed these holes would dilute cigarette smoke with air as it's inhaled—but this doesn't make light cigarettes safer, either.

People unknowingly cover the holes with their fingers when holding a cigarette. Some people even deliberately cover the holes to have a more intense inhalation.

Porous Paper

Light cigarette paper is more porous than the paper used in regular cigarettes. Cigarette companies said that porous paper allows some of the chemicals in cigarette smoke to be released through the paper before reaching a person's mouth.

In reality, a person is still inhaling chemicals—even with porous paper—which is never safe. Plus the chemicals are in the air around the person when they exhale, which will be inhaled in the form of secondhand smoke.

People who smoke light cigarettes are likely to inhale more deeply and for a longer period of time to overcompensate for the features that were intended to lower the tar yield.

Are Light Cigarettes Still Available?

Light cigarettes are technically still available. However, they are no longer labeled using the word "light" in the United States.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 granted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to regulate tobacco products. One of the first actions taken was to limit how cigarette companies are able to describe their products.

In the United States, cigarette manufacturers can no longer use the terms "light," "low," or "mild" on cigarette packaging because these claims are misleading.

But many cigarette manufacturers have kept the same color-coding on packaging to indicate which cigarettes used to be known as "light." For example, Camel Lights are now Camel Blues, and Marlboro Ultralights are now Marlboro Silver. Elsewhere in the world, cigarettes branded as "light" are still available.

Health Risks of Light Cigarettes

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), people who switch to light cigarettes from regular cigarettes are exposed to the same toxic chemicals and are at the same risk for the diseases related to smoking.

These risks include cardiovascular disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and emphysema, as well as numerous types of cancer including lung cancer, bladder cancer, esophageal cancer, stomach cancer, and pancreatic cancer.

Further health risks of smoking include weakened bones, cataracts (clouding of the eye's lens), type 2 diabetes, decreased immune function, and rheumatoid arthritis.

People who smoke while pregnant increase their child's risk of stillbirth (death before birth), low birth weight, pre-term delivery, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), among other risks. Smoking can cause decreased fertility as well.

"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. 

The Truth About Tobacco Products

There are many misconceptions about tobacco products and safety, namely that some tobacco products are "safer" than others. Unfortunately, no tobacco product is safe. Some other smokable tobacco-containing products that some falsely believe are safer than cigarettes include:

Any time you smoke tobacco, the smoke contains damaging toxins including tar and carcinogens (cancer-causing substances). Even products that don't have tobacco in them, like herbal cigarettes, still produce tar and carbon monoxide when you smoke them.

Not all vaping devices contain tobacco, either, but the aerosol or vapor has been linked to severe lung problems in people who use them, as well as a risk of cancer. Many vapes also contain nicotine, the same highly addictive substance found in cigarettes.

How to Quit Smoking

There are many different ways to quit smoking and cope with the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Some people quit cold turkey, while others taper off their smoking over time. Either way, it's advisable to pick a quit date, or a day when you resolve to start being completely nicotine-free.

Some people use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) to help them quit and to lessen the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. NRT includes lozenges, patches for your skin, oral sprays, and gum. NRTs administer precise doses of nicotine without the other toxins in cigarettes.

There are smoking cessation medications available by prescription. Talk to a healthcare provider about whether Chantix (varenicline) or Zyban (bupropion) may be right for you.

Additionally, receiving encouragement from friends, family members, or a quit smoking support group can be extremely beneficial while on the road to being nicotine-free.

If you or a loved one are struggling with nicotine addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Terry Martin
Terry Martin quit smoking after 26 years and is now an advocate for those seeking freedom from nicotine addiction.