Think Light Cigarettes Carry Less Lung Cancer Risk Than the Regular Kind? Think Again
“Safer” cigarette design backfired, increasing lung cancer rates, according to a new analysis.
By Shari Roan
Medically Reviewed by Thomas Marron, MD, PhD
Don't Miss This
Sign Up for OurCancer Care and PreventionNewsletter
Thanks for signing up!You might also like these other newsletters:
About 50 years ago, smokers were introduced to a new cigarette with tiny ventilation holes in the filter that, manufacturers claimed, would cut the amount of tar entering their lungs. The cigarettes with filter ventilation, dubbed "light," were a hit. Smokers assumed they were using a product that was less likely to harm their health.
Today, emerging research argues that “light” cigarettes backfired badly. A study published in May 2019 in theJournal of the National Cancer Instituteanalyzed decades of data on filter ventilation and low-tar cigarettes concluded that those products actually increased a type of lung cancer called adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma is a type of non–small cell lung cancer and is the most common type of lung cancer.
Today, approximately 80 percent of smokers use light cigarettes, says the lead author of the study, Peter Shields, MD, deputy director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at The Ohio State University and a lung oncologist at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute in Columbus.
“Ventilation holes made for a smoother smoke,” he says. “That’s the way these products were advertised: If you can’t quit, then switch to light cigarettes. Everyone bought into that, including the public health community.”
But statistics show that lung cancer cases continued to rise as smokers switched to light cigarettes. New cases of lung cancer rose from around 52 per 100,000 people in 1975 to 69.2 per 100,000 in 1991, according to government statistics. The U.S. Surgeon General reported in 2014 that cases of adenocarcinoma, specifically, were rising and had become the most common form of the disease. Decades ago, the most common type of lung cancer was squamous cell carcinoma.
Also, Dr. Shields says, data from tobacco companies submitted in court cases showed possible increased harm from cigarettes. Filters were touted as a way to trap tar, which would reduce the amount of dangerous chemicals from entering the lungs. But instead, two mechanisms appear to make filtered cigarettes more dangerous than nonfiltered cigarettes.
First, the tiny ventilation holes allow smoke to mix with air, and smokers may inhale more deeply when smoking ventilated cigarettes, perhaps to overcompensate for the reduction in nicotine, Shields says. Smoking machine tests performed on filtered cigarettes showed a reduced intake of smoke. But, he notes, machines aren’t people.
The second factor is that filtered cigarette smoke has a different chemical makeup. “The chemistry changes,” Shields says. “With more ventilation, the cigarette burns less quickly and less hot. That makes more bad chemicals (nitrosamines). The relative proportion in smoke of the bad chemicals changes and goes up. Areas of the lungs more sensitive to adenocarcinoma are affected.”
Shields and his research team have applied for a large grant to expand upon the research. They seek to show how there are “unintended consequences” to public health with the continued use of filtered cigarettes.
While tobacco companies can no longer advertise filtered cigarettes as “light” or “mild,” or as safer, the package colors and designs that help identify filtered cigarettes have remained the same, and many smokers continue to believe that filtered cigarettes are less harmful, he says.
“The public still believes filtered cigarettes are healthier,” he says. “I had patient say to me the other day, ‘I can’t quit, so I switched to a light cigarette.’”
In late July, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a comprehensive plan for tobacco and nicotine regulation, part of its strengthened authority to regulate tobacco products. High on the agency’s to-do list is to lower nicotine levels in cigarettes to nonaddictive levels. That’s a start, Shields says. But his recent journal article argues for tighter regulation of filtered cigarettes. Despite the known risks, 15.8 percent of Americans ages 18 and older smoke cigarettes.
Video: Indonesia clinic treats cancer with cigarretes
Uh, Turns Out, Your Store-Bought Makeup Might BeCounterfeit
Top Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis Flares
15 things you need to throw a Disney-themed Christmas party
This Is Us Season 2 Episode 8: Kevins Demons Break Loose
Hair dye cancer risk
Inside the Syrian radio station that won’t stop recording
8 Face Exfoliators That Will Give You Glowing Skin
4 Beauty Products You Should Never Skip After Age 40
How to Educate Others on the Importance of Immunization
Spoons Inspired by Synesthesia (Taste the Rainbow, Literally)
How to Know if You Are Drunk
How to Organize a Tiny Closet
Your Complete Plan to Go Paleo for a Day