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Other Tobacco Products

Light Cigarettes

Many smokers have chosen "light," "mild," or "low-tar" cigarettes because they think these cigarettes may be less harmful to their health and healthier than "regular" cigarettes.

However, due to the passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009, tobacco companies are now banned from using the terms light, ultra-light, low, or mild to describe cigarettes, so that smokers are no longer tricked into believing they are smoking safer products.

picture of light cigarettes

Before the passage of the law, cigarette brands that provided about 1-6 mg of nicotine, the addictive substance in cigarettes, to smokers were called “ultra-light.” Those that gave 6-15 mg of nicotine were called “light,” and those that provided more than 15 mg of nicotine were called regular or full-flavor.

Although the smoke from light cigarettes may have felt smoother and lighter on the throat and chest than regular cigarettes, they were not any healthier than regular cigarettes.

Characteristics of Light Cigarette Smokers

As age, educational level, and income level increase in individuals, the use of light or ultra-light cigarettes also increased. Use of light cigarettes was also higher among women than men. This is likely because many smokers, especially those with more education and higher incomes, thought light cigarettes were safer than smoking regular cigarettes.

Why Light Cigarettes Weren’t Any Safer

Light and ultra-light cigarette packs, and advertisements for these products, bragged about lower tar and nicotine numbers than regular cigarettes, like those mentioned above. This is because light cigarettes were tested on smoking machines that don’t smoke cigarettes the same way that people smoke cigarettes. Light cigarettes actually tricked smoking machines.

Tobacco companies made light cigarettes with tiny holes in the filters. These holes or “filter vents” thinned out the cigarette smoke with air when the smoking machine “puffed” on the filter, causing a falsely low measure of tar and nicotine levels.

Many smokers didn’t even know that these tiny holes existed in light cigarettes. Unlike the smoking machine, when people smoke, they tend to cover the holes with their lips or fingers, and they block the vents. This accidentally turns a light cigarette into a regular cigarette, giving the smoker a much higher tar and nicotine level than the smoker expects.

Because people, unlike machines, crave nicotine, they may breathe more deeply on a cigarette; take larger, quicker, or more puffs on a cigarette; or smoke a few extra cigarettes each day to get enough nicotine to satisfy the craving. This is called “compensating,” and it means that smokers end up inhaling more tar, nicotine, and other harmful chemicals than the machine-based numbers show.

Health Effects of Light Cigarette Smoking

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has concluded that light cigarettes provide no benefit to smokers' health.

According to an NCI report, people who switched to light cigarettes from regular cigarettes were likely to inhale the same amount of dangerous chemicals and they remained at high risk for developing the same smoking-related cancers and other diseases.

Although research shows that the tobacco industry used strategies to advertise and promote light cigarettes as safer options than regular cigarettes and a way to quit smoking, there is no evidence that switching to light or ultra-light cigarettes was any safer or assisted smokers in quitting.

The bottom line for smokers who want to protect their health is that there is no such thing as a safe cigarette. The only proven way to reduce the risk of smoking-related diseases is to quit smoking completely.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Smoking and Tobacco Use. "Fact Sheet: Low-Yield Cigarettes and Cigarette-like Products," November 2005 (Updated 2010). National Cancer Institute. "Fact Sheet. The Truth about "Light" Cigarettes: Questions and Answers." August 17, 2004 [accessed 2014 March 31].



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