Are Rolling Your Own Cigarettes a Healthy Smoking Choice?

Person hand rolling a cigarette. Juanma Aparicio/age fotostock/Getty Images

You may wonder whether rolling your own cigarettes is a way to cut back on smoking and avoid the harmful chemicals that are in regular filtered cigarettes. While there may be slight advantages, they are not a healthy choice.

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. Smokers can simply use cigarette papers and loose tobacco to hand roll a cigarette. Rolling machines are also a common way to make a uniform and more tightly packed cigarette. Preformed cigarette tubes are also available, some with filters and some without. These can be filled with loose tobacco and smoked.

Why Do People Smoke Roll Your Own Cigarettes?

These are common reasons given for making your own cigarettes:

  • Cost: A pouch of rolling tobacco and cigarette papers is much cheaper than buying brand name or generic cigarettes.
  • To Smoke Less: Because smoking a hand-rolled cigarette involves rolling it first, smokers tend to light up less often than with traditional filtered cigarettes.
  • Image: There is a perception in some circles that people who roll their own cigarettes are edgy and non-traditional.
  • An Inaccurate Belief That It's Healthier: Research has shown that RYO cigarettes are at least as risky to a smoker's health as regular cigarettes. More on that below.

RYO Cigarettes vs. Commercial Cigarettes

While it is true that RYO 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.

Some of the worst include:

  • TSNAsTobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) are some of the most potent carcinogens in tobacco and tobacco smoke. TSNAs are present in green tobacco in small amounts, but it is the processing and curing of tobacco that causes high levels of TSNAs. 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 with regular cigarettes, due in part to the lack of a filter, but also because they need to suck harder to inhale the smoke.
  • NicotineNicotine is the addictive substance of​ cigarettes, but you might be surprised to learn that is is 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 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.

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.  

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the U.S. anti-smoking organization ASH, 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."

The Health Risks Associated With RYO Cigarettes

People who smoke hand-rolled cigarettes face an elevated risk of:

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

It is safe to say, however, that RYO cigarettes are nothing remotely close to a healthy (or healthier) smoking choice. RYO cigarettes endanger the health of anyone who smokes them—or breathes in the secondhand smoke they produce, for that matter.

The Only "Safe" Cigarette is an Unlit Cigarette. 

If you're still smoking, consider quitting sooner rather than later. It never gets easier to stop the longer you smoke. Learn how to quit smoking—and make it stick.

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