Researchers say your lung cancer risk is lower from smoking filtered cigarettes, but there’s little difference if you smoke “light” cigarettes.

Share on Pinterest
The risk of lung cancer is different for different cigarettes, but experts say you’re much better off not smoking. Getty Images

Today’s cigarettes are a lot different than your grandparent’s cigarettes.

Flavors, chemicals, filters, tar levels, packaging: They’ve all changed over the decades.

But that doesn’t mean they’re safer.

New research presented today reports that while people who smoked filtered cigarettes were less likely to die of lung cancer than those who smoked unfiltered cigarettes, there was no difference in health outcomes between those who smoked “light” cigarettes from those who smoked regular ones.

But experts contend that even the difference between filtered and unfiltered may be somewhat overstated. Instead they say the findings add to the evidence that smoking cigarettes of any type is dangerous.

The study, led by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina, found that people who smoked unfiltered cigarettes were 40 percent more likely to develop lung cancer and nearly twice as likely to die from it than those who smoked filtered cigarettes.

They were also more dependent on nicotine and 30 percent more likely to die of any cause.

But the changes of developing or dying from lung cancer were no different between smokers of regular cigarettes and those who smoked “light” or “ultralight” ones.

The researchers also found the light or ultralight cigarette smokers were on average less dependent on nicotine, but they were also less likely to quit smoking.

“While popular belief may be that a switch to light/ultralight cigarettes is a safer option, this study demonstrates that there is no difference in clinical outcomes between regular and light/ultralight cigarette smokers,” the study’s authors wrote.

Stanton Glantz, PhD, who researches smoking’s health effects and tobacco control efforts at the University of San Francisco, agrees.

“The results comparing light/mild with ‘full flavor’ cigs confirms what we already know, namely that light/mild is a fraud,” Glantz told Healthline.

“The fact that users mistakenly think that they are healthier could be contributing to the lower likelihood of quitting smoking among smokers of light cigarettes,” he added.

It could also help explain, he notes, the lower likelihood — or at least mixed results — of quitting among those who use e-cigarettes.

“We have known for many years that cigarettes that were misleadingly marketed by the tobacco industry as ‘light’ or ‘ultralight’ were not meaningfully less lethal than other cigarettes,” Eric Jacobs, PhD, senior scientific director of epidemiology research at the American Cancer Society, told Healthline.

That fact has led to bans on the terms, he notes.

In terms of enforcement, a number of jurisdictions have taken action so consumers know “light” doesn’t necessarily mean “safer” — but with mixed results.

Bans on using terms such as “light,” “ultralight,” and “mild” went into effect in Europe in the early 2000s. But studies have found many Europeans still believe some cigarettes are safer than others.

In the United States, a 2009 law banned the use of such “reduced harm” terms, but cigarette companies seem to have gotten around it using color coding and other methods.

Studies have suggested those strategies might have resulted in the companies essentially evading the new law.

Glantz says the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t taken any steps to stop this practice.

As for the possible “good news” in the new study — that filters may help reduce the likelihood of developing or dying from lung cancer — experts were skeptical.

Kenneth Michael Cummings, PhD, who co-leads the tobacco control research program at the Medical University of South Carolina, suspects the difference may be due to selection bias.

Cummings, who wasn’t involved in the new research, says a similar study was published in 2004. That paper also found that light, or “low-tar,” cigarettes carried the same health risks as regular cigarettes, but unfiltered cigarettes were more dangerous than filtered ones.

But, Cummings told Healthline, the problem with that study was that people who only smoked unfiltered cigarettes were different in many ways — age, gender, income, other tobacco use — than people who smoked filtered ones.

And those factors “could account for the slightly higher risk observed for the unfiltered cigarettes,” Cummings said.

He thinks the same selection bias could account for the differences seen in the new research.

Filters were introduced to address health concerns in the 1950s. Today’s anti-smoking advocates say they’ve only obscured the dangers of smoking.

Indeed, some studies have found they’ve made smoking more dangerous by making it seem less harmful, causing smokers to drag harder on the cigarettes and leading them to inhale fibers from some filters.

Whether they make smoking safer or less safe, though, may be somewhat beside the point at this time. Filters have by now become ubiquitous, at least in the United States.

“Filters were designed to keep people smoking,” Glantz said.

He points out that the vast majority of smokers today use filtered cigarettes, so the “practical impact (of a study finding that unfiltered cigarettes may be more dangerous) is small in terms of tobacco products in the USA,” he said.

It may be more relevant to other countries, where unfiltered tobacco products are more common, Glantz adds.

New research on how the type of cigarette someone smokes affects their chances of cancer or dying of cancer found people who smoke unfiltered cigarettes are at the most risk.

But no difference in risk was seen between those who smoke “light” cigarettes and regular cigarettes.

Tobacco control experts say the difference between filtered and unfiltered cigarettes may be somewhat overstated, and that the findings add to the evidence that smoking cigarettes of any type — including those marketed as “safer” — is unhealthy.