The Risks of Rolling Tobacco

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

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 rolling tobacco is no exception.

The Risks of Rolling Tobacco

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

The Basics of Rolling Tobacco

Roll-your-own (RYO) cigarettes are hand-rolled and 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, such as using cigarette papers and loose tobacco, or using a rolling machine to make a uniform and more tightly packed cigarette. Preformed cigarette tubes can also be filled with loose tobacco and smoked—both with and without filters.

Reasons to Roll Your Own Cigarettes

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.
  • Image: There is a perception in some social circles that people who roll their own cigarettes are "edgy" and non-traditional. A 2018 study in Ireland published in BMC Public Health found that the "artisanal" appeal of RYO cigarettes is another reason why young people use them.
  • Perception of health: Some smokers may assume that RYO cigarettes are healthier because they believe them to be more "natural." However, the current body of evidence has shown that RYO cigarettes are just as risky to a smoker's health as regular ones.


RYO cigarettes contain additives and dangerous chemicals. Whether it's coming from a regular or RYO cigarette, tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, at least 250 of which are known to be harmful. Some toxins to be concerned about include:

  • Carbon monoxideCarbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic byproduct of burning fuel, such as car exhaust, as well as tobacco products. 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.
  • Nicotine: Nicotine 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.
  • Tar: Tar is the sticky brown residue that stains the end of a cigarette filter and other surfaces it comes into contact with. Tar also settles on the delicate tissue in the lungs and bronchial tubes of smokers. 
  • 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.

Rolling Tobacco vs. Regular Cigarettes

There are some notable differences between RYO and regular cigarettes. Smokers tend to inhale more tar and nicotine when smoking RYO cigarettes, due to the lack of a filter.

However, both types of cigarettes are similar in that they are incredibly damaging to one's health. A 2019 study looked at the amount of TSNAs in the saliva of RYO and regular cigarette smokers and concluded that RYO cigarettes are just as harmful as manufactured cigarettes.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the anti-smoking organization Action on Smoking & Health (ASH), put the differences between RYO and regular cigarettes into perspective in an interview with Independent: "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

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:

  • Cancer of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Lung cancer

In fact, lifelong RYO smokers have a higher risk of certain cancers—including larynx, esophagus, mouth, and pharynx—than those who smoke regular cigarettes, according to the American Cancer Society.

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

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.

Laws and Regulations

RYO cigarette products, including rolling tobacco and paper, are regulated by the FDA. Anyone who makes, manufactures, or imports tobacco must comply with a number of laws, such as registering their business every year, paying fees, and submitting an ingredient list to the FDA.

Retailers who sell RYO cigarette products also must adhere to a list of rules, such as applying to market their product and displaying a warning statement on its packaging. And as of December 20, 2019, you must be 21 years old in the United States to purchase a tobacco product.

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.

Did You Know?

Under the Essential Health Benefits of the Affordable Care Act, the tools for quitting can be provided free of charge through your health insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare.

Just remember that no form of tobacco is safe—all pose serious dangers to your health, and you will benefit immensely from quitting. It's amazing what happens when you stop smoking.

13 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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  2. Breslin E, Hanafin J, Clancy L. It’s not all about price: Factors associated with roll-your-own tobacco use among young people - a qualitative studyBMC Public Health 2018;18:991.

  3. Hoek J, Ferguson S, Court E, Gallopel-Morvan K. Qualitative exploration of young adult RYO smokers’ practicesTob Control. 2016;26(5):563-568. doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2016-053168

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  7. Edwards SH, Rossiter LM, Taylor KM, et al. Tobacco-specific nitrosamines in the tobacco and mainstream smoke of U.S. commercial cigarettesChem Res Toxicol. 2017;30(2):540-551. doi:10.1021/acs.chemrestox.6b00268

  8. NHS inform. Tobacco.

  9. Cartanyà-Hueso À, Lidón-Moyano C, Fu M, et al. Comparison of TSNAs concentration in saliva according to type of tobacco smoked. Environ Res. 2019;172:73-80. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.12.006

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  11. American Cancer Society. Is any type of tobacco product safe?

  12. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Roll-your-own tobacco.

  13. American Lung Association. Tobacco cessation treatment: What is covered?

By Terry Martin
Terry Martin quit smoking after 26 years and is now an advocate for those seeking freedom from nicotine addiction.