Are Light Cigarettes Safer for You?

Do light cigarettes reduce the health risks of smoking?

close up of lit cigarette
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It used to be that smokers could buy cigarettes that claimed to be "ultra-light", "mild" or "light" in the United States.  

Tobacco companies developed cigarettes that were advertised as a healthier choice than "regular" or "full-flavor" cigarettes in the 1960's and 70's, asserting they contained less tar and nicotine.  Numerous studies had been published that linked smoking to cancer, and this was the Big Tobacco's response to the issue.

Smokers 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 regulars, right?  Not quite. However, the idea that light cigarettes were a better smoking choice took hold though and held fast for decades.

What Makes a Cigarette "Light"?

Cigarette manufacturers defined low-tar cigarettes in the following way: 

Term on Cigarette PackagingMachine-Measured Tar Yield (milligrams)
Ultra-light or Ultra-low TarApprox. 7 mg or less
Light or Low TarApprox. 8 - 14 mg
Full-Flavor or RegularApprox. 15 mg or more

Machines that "smoke" cigarettes were used to obtain the tar levels for "ultra-light" and "light" cigarettes. There are problems with making the measurements this way.  Machines smoke cigarettes differently than people, so it's hard to get an accurate reading. Further, no two people smoke in the same way, so tar levels can and will vary quite a bit.

The machine smoked tar yield will usually be lower than the amount of tar inhaled by a person.

It is important to note that the tobacco industry itself decided on what defined "ultra-light" and "light" — not a Federal agency as you might expect.

Cigarette manufacturers employ a few tactics to try to change the composition of tobacco smoke and how the smoke is inhaled in order to classify cigarettes as "light".

1.  Cigarette filters made of cellulose acetate are used to trap particulate matter in cigarette smoke known as tar to keep it from going into smoker's lungs. Cellulose acetate is the white cotton-like material that makes up the interior of the filter. Filters do trap some tar, but plenty of it escapes the filter and is inhaled.  It also floats in the air and is the part of cigarette smoke known as third-hand smoke

2.  Cigarette paper used in light cigarettes is more porous than the paper used in regular cigarettes. This is to allow chemicals in smoke to exit through the paper before reaching the smoker's mouth. That said, the chemicals are still in the air around the smoker, and if in an enclosed space, will be inhaled as secondhand smoke.  

The porous paper also burns faster, so the time the cigarette is lit is shortened. 

3.  The addition of tiny, perforated holes in the cigarette filter let air be inhaled along with tobacco smoke, thus diluting it. However, many people unwittingly cover the holes with their fingers when holding the cigarette, defeating the purpose. And others deliberately cover the pinholes because the diluted smoke doesn't offer a satisfying smoking experience.

They also may take bigger puffs and smoke a few extra cigarettes per day to compensate for the lower nicotine yield.

Are Light Cigarettes Still Sold in the United States?

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 granted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products.  

One of the first actions taken was to limit how cigarette companies are able to describe their products. They can no longer use the terms "light", "low" and "mild" on cigarette packaging, because science does not support this claim, and it misleads the public.

Tobacco companies are invested in casting their products in the most positive light possible, so losing the ability to brand cigarettes as light or mild was a blow.

Sneakily, many have taken to color coding cigarette packaging today to trigger the "light" concept for smokers who used to buy these same brands (usually with the same colors) in the past. Camel Lights are now Camel Blues, and Marlboro Ultralights are now Marlboro Silver, for instance.

Elsewhere in the world, "light" cigarettes are still available.

What Does Science Say About Light Cigarettes?

A report from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) concluded that light cigarettes do not represent any benefit to a smoker's health.  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.

There Is No Such Thing as a Safe Cigarette

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.

Here's the good news: Smokers who quit before age 50 cut their risk of dying in half over the next 15 years compared to people who keep smoking.

Quitting also decreases your risk of lung cancer, heart attacks, stroke, and chronic lung disease.

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