WASHINGTONSmoking "light" or "ultralight"
cigarettes, which are promoted as less hazardous to health than regular brands,
does not reduce a person’s risk of developing lung cancer or other
tobacco-related diseases, according to a new report from the National Cancer
"There is no convincing evidence that changes in
cigarette design over the last 50 years have reduced the disease burden
produced by cigarettes," said David M. Burns, MD, professor of medicine at
the University of California, San Diego, the report’s senior scientific
The report finds that people who smoke "low-tar"
cigarettes are actually likely to take in as much nicotine as smokers who use
regular cigarettes. Because the amount of tar inhaled is relatively
proportional to the amount of nicotine taken in, the exposure to carcinogens
and other harmful chemicals will also equal that of regular-tar cigarettes.
Dr. Burns released the report at a press conference
sponsored by four health organizationsthe Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids,
American Cancer Society, American Heart Association (AHA), and American Lung
He also said that the study was unable to determine the
health effects on smokers who began with low-tar cigarettes and never used
Although lung cancer is the disease most commonly associated
with cigarette smoking, AHA chief executive officer M. Cass Wheeler noted that
of the more than 400,000 annual US deaths from smoking-related illnesses,
nearly half result from cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Burns noted that 87% of cigarettes now sold in the
United States are advertised as low in tar. "Clearly, smokers have bought
into the illusion of harm reduction and the deception of low-tar
cigarettes," he said.
The new study reviewed existing scientific literature and
internal tobacco company documents made public as the result of several
lawsuits brought by the states. Its findings and conclusion reverse several
decades of advice to smokers by public health officials that they switch to
cigarettes rated as low in tar and nicotine by the Federal Trade Commission
(FTC) if they could not stop smoking.
"For decades, we told smokers, if you can’t quit,
switch," said Campaign president Matthew L. Myers. "Today, we are
telling smokers there is no alternative."
That previous advice was based on early and inadequate
studies, according to Dr. Burns, that indicated low-tar products should reduce
the risk and mortality from lung cancer.
Moreover, the public health community was slow to recognize
two significant factors about low-tar cigarettes. One, people who switch to
low-tar cigarettes change their smoking habits to compensate for the reduced
nicotine. Two, tobacco companies engineered cigarettes so that smokers could
inhale more nicotine- and tar-containing smoke than the machines used by the
FTC to test for tobacco tars.
"Smokers smoke for nicotine, and if a cigarette
delivers less nicotine, smokers compensate by taking larger puffs, more puffs
per cigarette, and smoking more cigarettes per day to get the same
nicotine," Dr. Burns said.
Machines are not addicted to nicotine, he added, "a
fact the tobacco companies recognized early in their efforts to produce low-tar
cigarettes. They worked hard to build into the cigarette an elasticity of
delivery that allowed the smoker to receive whatever dose of nicotine he or she
wanted from a cigarette, while keeping the machine-measured levels low so the
cigarette could be marketed as low-tar, safer cigarettes."
A key technique in re-engineering cigarettes was to
strategically place tiny holes in the cigarette filter. When machines puffed
cigarettes, the holes resulted in a high dose of air and a low dose of smoke.
When actual smokers drew hard, the holes’ design enabled a far higher dose of
smoke than air.
"In addition, the holes are placed on the filter
exactly where smokers can block them with their lips or their fingers, once
again decreasing the amount of air and increasing the amount of smoke,"
Dr. Burns said. "From the tobacco industry’s perspective, you now have
the perfect cigarette, one that could be advertised as delivering less tar
while delivering a fully satisfying dose of nicotine.
Copies of Risks Associated With Smoking Cigarettes with Low
Machine-Measured Yields of Tar and Nicotine can be obtained by calling
1-800-422-6237 or online at www.cancer.gov/publications.
Neal L. Benowitz, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California,
San Francisco, served as co-scientific editor of the report.