Science Questions

Are 'light' cigarettes better?

Sun, 11th Oct 2009

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Question

Andrew asked:

Is there any actual benefit from smoking a light cigarette as opposed to like a full strength one?

Answer

Chris -   James Bond said that giving up smoking is actually really easy.  He’d done it hundreds of times.  The thing with smoking is of course, everyone takes these or uses these ‘light’ or kind of ‘smooth’ cigarette brands.  They first surfaced in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  I was doing a bit of research of this because I thought they were more recent than this.  But they first surfaced in the ‘50s and ‘60s actually, coinciding with when Richard Doll first published studies, showing that smoking is bad for you.  So, it was a sort of response in the part of cigarette manufacturers to try to market a product that gave the impression that it was in fact much healthier.  And in fact, 80% of the cigarettes that gets smoked worldwide are now of the ‘light’ variety.  And the way they make them ‘light’ is that they put little holes in the filter.  And so, as the person takes a drag on the cigarette, it draws in some air with the smoke.  But what that means is, this can actually lead to a change in behaviour on the part of the person.  And in fact, the statistics show that in fact, smoking ‘light’ cigarettes is no better for you than smoking full strength cigarettes.  And the reason is, people change their smoking behaviour to accommodate the fact that they're getting a lower nicotine dose.

There was a study which got published in the journal, Neuropsychopharmacology was a guy in UCLA in America, Arthur Brody did this last year.  They got people who smoked into the laboratory and they did a thing called a PET scan.  This is a way of imaging the brain and they got them to smoke cigarettes and they compared people smoking cigarettes that had nicotine in them with cigarettes that have very little nicotine in them or much lower doses, to see how many of the receptors for nicotine in the brain got filled by these different varieties of cigarettes.  And they found almost the same amount of occupancy.  The receptors are getting stimulated, just as much.  Probably because  the people were smoking the ‘light’ cigarettes harder to get the dose up.  Because at the end of the day, the cigarette has got nicotine in it and that’s the thing you want.  So, people will just titrate up or increase their dose of cigarettes, in order to get their nicotine levels to what they want it to be, to satisfy their craving.

I went looking for any actual evidence that light cigarettes are better on the internet and I found this site, the US National Cancer Institute.  This is a government organization.  They've got a very interesting analysis on this on their website and I’ll just read it to you because I couldn’t add anything to this.  I couldn’t put it better myself, but this is really quite staggering.  Listen to this:

“Tobacco companies designed light cigarettes with tiny pinholes on their filters.  These “filter vents” dilute cigarette smoke with air so that when lit cigarettes are “puffed” by smoking machines, and that’s how they get their tar numbers in the nicotine values which they then report in the packet, these causes the machine to measure an artificially low tar and nicotine level.  But many smokers do not know that their cigarettes have these vent holes and the filter vents are uncovered when the cigarettes are smoked on the smoking machines, but the filter vents are placed just millimetres from where a smoker puts their lips or fingers when they're smoking.  And as a result, many smokers block the vents when they smoke and this actually turns the light cigarette into a regular cigarette.  Some cigarette makers also increased the length of the paper wrapped around the outside of the cigarette filter and this decreases the number of puffs that occur during a machine test.  Although the tobacco under the filter is still available to the smoker and this tobacco is not burned during the machine test.  As a result, the machine measures less tar and nicotine than is actually available when the person smokes.”

And here’s the real clincher.  Because smokers, unlike machines, crave nicotine, they will inhale more deeply, take larger, more rapid, or more frequent puffs or smoke a few extra cigarettes each day to get enough nicotine to satisfy their craving, and this is called “compensating,” and it means that smokers end up inhaling more tar, nicotine, and other harmful chemicals than the machines would actually have you believe.  

So that’s actually on the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s cancer.gov website.  So, I think the answer to your question is, ‘light’ cigarettes are basically a way of making you smoke and think you're doing yourself some good.  There’s no evidence that actually help people improve their health or give up.

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