“Tar” is the substance delivered by cigarettes that causes cancer and respiratory diseases. Nicotine is the addictive drug people smoke for. Cigarettes marketed as "light", "mild" or "ultra light" are reported to deliver lower quantities of tar and nicotine than regular cigarettes. However, this is only the case when they are smoked in a standard manner by a machine. However humans do not smoke cigarettes in a standard manner like machines. If you have smoked, you will probably recall that some of your cigarettes are smoked intensively almost right down to the butt, while others largely burn out themselves, with only a few quick puffs being taken. You can therefore have complete control of how much smoke you inhale from each cigarette. Cigarette manufacturers reduce the machine-smoked yields of cigarettes by putting tiny holes in the filter (vents) which allow air to be mixed with smoke when a person (or machine) draws a puff. This gives it a lower “tar score” on the machine test. However, smokers who switch to these "light" cigarettes tend to smoke them in a manner which increases the amount of smoke they inhale, such that it is well above the machine-smoked yields printed on the packs. Smokers do this because they are smoking for nicotine, and will puff more frequently, more deeply or simply block the vents with their lips or fingers (subconsciously) in order to obtain their usual dose of nicotine (and therefore tar).

A study has shown that Camel Lights actually contain more nicotine per cigarette (10.3mg) than Camel Full Flavor (9.5 mg). Thus the numbers printed on the packs bear very little relation either to the total quantity contained in the cigarette or absorbed by the smoker.

The majority of smokers of "light" cigarettes believe them to be less harmful than regular brands. Unfortunately the evidence suggests that "light" cigarettes are just as harmful as regular cigarettes, and that for many smokers, switching to "lights" merely delays the day when the person quits completely. Of course, the tobacco industry has known all of this for more than thirty years. An internal memo within the Philip Morris tobacco company in 1976 indicated that their own research on Marlboro Lights already showed that smokers of light cigarettes do not inhale less harmful smoke. It stated, "Marlboro Lights cigarettes were not smoked like regular Marlboros. There were differences in the size and frequency of puffs, with larger volumes taken on Marlboro Lights......In effect, the Marlboro 85 smokers in this study did not achieve any reduction in the smoke intake by smoking a cigarette normally considered lower in delivery".

The main message for smokers is that if you are interested in doing something to reduce or avoid the health risks of smoking, then switching to so called "light" cigarettes will not necessarily help achieve that aim. The single best thing a smoker can do for their health is to stop smoking.
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.