Is Rolling Your Own Cigarettes a Healthy Way to Smoke?

Person hand rolling a cigarette.
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Many smokers believe that rolling your own cigarettes is a way to cut back on smoking and/or avoid the harmful chemicals that are in commercially-produced regular filtered cigarettes. But there's no such thing as a healthy smoking option, and hand-rolled cigarettes are no exception.

What Are Roll-Your-Own Cigarettes?

Roll-your-own (RYO) cigarettes are hand-rolled cigarettes made with loose tobacco. Other names for RYO cigarettes include rollies, roll-ups, burns, and rolls. There are a few ways to make hand-rolled cigarettes, including using cigarette papers and loose tobacco or using rolling machines to make a uniform and more tightly packed cigarette. Preformed cigarette tubes that can be filled with loose tobacco and smoked—both with and without filters—are also available.

Some common reasons smokers prefer RYO cigarettes include:

  • Cost: A pouch of rolling tobacco and cigarette papers is much cheaper than buying brand name or generic cigarettes.
  • Less smoking: Because smoking a hand-rolled cigarette involves rolling it first, smokers tend to light up less often than those who smoke traditional filtered cigarettes.
  • Image: There is a perception in some social circles that people who roll their own cigarettes are "edgy" and non-traditional.
  • Belief that it's healthier: Many smokers assume that RYO cigarettes are a healthier option than commercial cigarettes, perceiving them as more "natural," though research has shown that RYO cigarettes are at least as risky to a smoker's health as regular cigarettes.

What They Contain

While it is true that roll-your-own cigarettes don't contain the many thousands of chemical compounds regular cigarettes do, they do still contain additives and dangerous chemicals. RYO cigarette smokers inhale enough toxins to be concerned about, such as:

  • Tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs)These are some of the most potent carcinogens in tobacco and tobacco smoke. TSNAs are present in green tobacco (unprocessed tobacco plant leaves) in small amounts, but it is the processing and curing of tobacco that causes high levels. These remain in loose tobacco.
  • TarTar is the sticky brown residue that stains the end of a cigarette filter and coats surfaces where smoking occurs. It also settles on delicate tissue in the lungs and bronchial tubes of smokers. Smokers usually inhale more tar while smoking RYO cigarettes than regular cigarettes, due in part to the lack of a filter, but also the need to suck RYOs harder to inhale the smoke.
  • NicotineNicotine is the addictive substance of​ cigarettes, and it is present in loose tobacco. It's also a potent poison that has been used in pesticides for decades.
  • Carbon monoxideCarbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic byproduct of the incomplete burning of carbon-containing fuels. When breathed in, CO interferes with the body's ability to carry oxygen. Cigarette smoke from any type of cigarette can contain high levels of CO.

    Researchers have studied TSNAs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the urine of both traditional cigarette smokers and RYO smokers. These two groups of chemicals are highly carcinogenic byproducts of cigarette smoking and appear to be present in virtually the same quantities regardless of the type of cigarette smoked.

    Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the U.S. anti-smoking organization Action on Smoking & Health (ASH), bluntly puts the differences between RYO and regular cigarettes in perspective: "A useful analogy that has been used is that arguing over the difference between roll-ups and straights is like arguing whether it’s safer to jump out of the 20th or 15th floor of a building—either way, you’re going to hit the ground and die."

    Health Risks

    In fact, scientists and doctors widely believe that the risks to a smoker's health are the same regardless of whether you're smoking commercially-produced cigarettes or rolling your own. 

    Just like commercial cigarette smokers, people who smoke hand-rolled cigarettes face a risk of:

    It's difficult to assess the overall risk of RYOs because each hand-rolled cigarette is unique and the amount of tobacco will vary, as will how the cigarette is smoked. Also, some smokers use filtered tubes for their RYO tobacco and some don't.

    However, it is safe to say that RYO cigarettes are nothing remotely close to a healthy (or healthier) smoking choice.

    RYO cigarettes endanger the health of anyone who smokes them, as well as those who breathe in the secondhand smoke they produce.

    A Word From Verywell

    If you're still smoking any type of cigarette, consider quitting sooner rather than later. There are many tools and resources that can help you kick the habit, including support groups, quit aids, and counseling.

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