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Low-Tar Cigarettes Are Not A Safer Choice

Studies show smoking high-tar unfiltered cigarettes, as opposed to medium-tar filtered cigarettes, greatly increases your risk of lung cancer. So, cigarettes labeled as low-tar or ultra light are an even safer choice, right? Wrong. A recent study comparing the lung cancer risks of different types of cigarettes found this seemingly logical assumption is false.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year, lasted six years and involved over 900,000 Americans over the age of 30. The researchers compared the risk of death from lung cancer among men and women who were smokers, former smokers, or had never smoked. When analyzed according to the tar rating of cigarette smoked, the results of the study showed the risk of lung cancer death was greatest for smokers of high-tar unfiltered cigarettes. The risk of lung cancer death was no different among smokers of medium-, low-, and very low-tar cigarettes.

These findings do not come as a complete surprise to researchers. A previous study showed smokers of low-tar cigarettes compensate for the decrease in tar level by changing their inhalation pattern. By blocking ventilation holes in the filter, increasing the drag time, holding the puff longer and deeper, or smoking more cigarettes, addicted smokers may maintain their nicotine intake (and exposure to carcinogens) with low-tar cigarettes.

Low-tar cigarettes were not developed until the 1960s and 1970s. Ultra light cigarettes are even newer. Many of the study’s participants smoked medium- or high-tar cigarettes before lower tar cigarettes became available. For this reason, it was impossible for the researchers to evaluate the risk of lung cancer for those who exclusively smoke low and very low-tar cigarettes. Despite this, the researchers believe low-tar cigarettes have been around long enough and the evidence is sufficient to suggest low-tar cigarettes carry the same risk as medium-tar. The researchers concede additional studies involving long-term smokers of ultra light cigarettes may reveal a difference in lung cancer occurrences.

The research also revealed current smokers, regardless of the tar level, had a substantially higher risk of lung cancer than people who had never smoked and people who stopped smoking by age 35. A smaller follow-up study showed smokers of low-tar or ultra light cigarettes were more likely to have stopped smoking ten years after the start of the initial study.

Becoming a non-smoker is difficult, but the benefits – reduced risk of lung cancer and heart disease, to name a few - are well worth it at any age. Switching to low-tar or ultra light cigarettes is not the answer to reducing your risk of disease. Many methods for quitting smoking, from nicotine patches to hypnosis or support groups, are out there to help you achieve your goal. Contact the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, or American Cancer Society for more information. Speak with your doctor about which method may be right for you.

September 2004 Update

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