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Smoking and cancer: Filter and low-tar cigarettes

Low-tar cigarettes are no better for you than normal brands. Filter and low-tar cigarettes make very little difference to the levels of chemicals in smoke. There is no such thing as a 'safe cigarette'.

Some modern cigarettes have design elements that were originally thought to lower smokers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals. Unfortunately these changes don’t work. They include:

  • adding filters to cigarette tips
  • making brands with lower levels of nicotine and tar.

It is extremely unlikely that a ‘safe’ cigarette could ever be developed. The chemicals that are formed when tobacco is burned are naturally harmful.

The problem with filters

Filters may stop smokers from inhaling some of the solid particles in inhaled smoke. But they do not block out the many toxic gases in smoke, such as hydrogen cyanide, ammonia and carbon monoxide.

Filters also do nothing to reduce the chemical content of sidestream smoke. This is the smoke from the burning end of the cigarette, rather than the smoke that passes through the filters. Since second-hand smoke is mostly sidestream smoke, filters do not reduce non-smokers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The problem with low-tar cigarettes

Cigarettes that are lower in tar also tend to be lower in nicotine. However, smokers who use filtered or low-tar cigarettes have ways of compensating unintentionally for this so that they can get the level of nicotine they need. These include:

  • taking longer drags
  • smoking more frequently
  • blocking filters with their fingers

This compensation is so strong that people who smoke ‘low tar’ cigarettes may end up inhaling as much or more smoke than those who smoke normal brands. Studies have shown that they could have similar or higher levels of cancer-causing chemicals in their bodies.

The tobacco industry

It is clear that the tobacco industry knew about how smokers compensated for low-tar cigarettes decades ago. We know this because of various documents released by the industry as a result of legal action taken against it.

The tobacco industry deliberately kept this information quiet and built a marketing strategy implying that low-tar cigarettes were a “safer” alternative for health-concerned smokers. Because this is not the case, the terms ‘light’ and ‘mild’ are no longer permitted in the EU for cigarettes.

Tar measurements taken with a smoking machine, were also known to be a poor reflection of the way people actually smoke and therefore of the actual amounts of tar inhaled. The tobacco industry’s own research showed that smokers inhale about twice as much smoke as a smoking machine.

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Updated: 25 September 2009