The National Cancer Institute says that although "light" cigarettes may skimp on harmful tar, smokers puff harder, smoke more and take other steps to make sure they get their nicotine fix.
As a result, health officials say, their risk of lung cancer, heart disease and other ailments associated with smoking is no lower than if they smoke high-test tobacco.
In the late 1960s, public health officials began advocating low-tar and light cigarettes as a next-best alternative to quitting, but the report says studies since then prove that that well-intended guidance was wrong.
"The preponderance of the evidence shows that people adjust their smoking patterns and are thus at a very high risk of disease," says Scott Leischow, chief of the tobacco control research branch at NCI, which released the report today. "The only proven way to reduce risk is to quit. We cannot recommend that people switch to a light cigarette."
Seth Moskowitz, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., says the Winston-Salem, N.C. firm has "never claimed that low-tar
cigarettes are safer than any other cigarette, and we agree that the only sure way to reduce the risks of smoking is to quit."
Sharon Boyse, director of applied research at Brown & Williamson, whose brands include Kool, Lucky Strike and Pall Mall, agrees that low-tar cigarettes "might not be safer. And it's absolutely appropriate to tell smokers" just that. Boyse says the company also agrees that smokers of light cigarettes may compensate for the lower nicotine, and that they should be told not to block filter vents when they puff.
However, Boyse adds that light cigarettes, if smoked properly, can cut down on exposure to tar. Therefore, she says, it would be "misleading, and on the verge of irresponsible" for officials to imply that smokers are no better off with light brands.
The report, "Risks Associated with Smoking Cigarettes with Low Machine-Measured Yields of Tar and Nicotine," was commissioned in 1999 by the Clinton administration. Two California tobacco experts, Dr. David Burns, of the University of California at San Diego, and Dr. Neal Benowitz, of U.C./San Francisco, edited the monograph.
This year, an estimated 172,000 Americans will die of cancers linked to tobacco use, mostly lung tumors, officials say. That's more than 30 percent of the 553,400 projected cancer deaths. Overall, tobacco use claims more than 400,000 lives a year in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One in four American adults, or 47 million people, smoke cigarettes and 70 percent of them want to quit, according to a 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine. The latest document says that most of those trying to cut back choose "light" or "ultra-light" cigarettes. Yet "current evidence does not support either claims of reduced harm or policy recommendations to switch to these products," the report states.
Although 97 percent of cigarettes now have filters -- which were introduced in the 1950s to trap toxic chemicals -- and despite the popularity of low-tar brands, lung cancer rates rose steadily until the early 1990s, health officials say. And while lung cancer has been in retreat in recent years, that trend is due not to cigarette design but to a decrease in the number of Americans who smoke.
Cigarette makers use vents in their filters to reduce the yield of tar and nicotine delivered with every puff. Yet the report notes that smokers often cover up these vents with their lips or fingers.
In part as a result of this practice, the Federal Trade Commission's machine method of rating cigarettes for their tar and nicotine content doesn't accurately reflect actual smoking. "Smokers received a much higher dose of tar and enough nicotine to satisfy their addiction," the report says.
Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, makers of Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Merit and other brands, says
conflict over the FTC rating system supports the company's call for the Food and Drug Administration to impose "uniform and
consistent" ways of evaluating tobacco products for their tar and nicotine content.
The report claims the tobacco industry has been aware of the discrepancy and designed their products to exploit it. The FTC, which has asked government health officials for help in improving its testing of tobacco products, allows cigarettes to be called "light" if they register 10 milligrams or less of tar and 0.8 mg or less of nicotine on the rating machine.
Boyse says it's "irritating" and "offensive" to be accused of manipulating the FTC rating system. "We told them in the first place" that the machines could measure average yields of tar and nicotine, she says.
Moskowitz rejects the allegation that R.J. Reynolds, which makes Winston, Camel, Salem and other brands, worked to foil the
FTC machine system, calling the claim "incorrect."
Moskowitz also denies that the company's ad campaigns try to sell its light products as less harmful alternatives. "The
descriptors are for taste and reported tar and nicotine yields. They do not, and are not meant to, imply that any brand style or any
category is safer than any other."
According to the NCI, the average yield of U.S. cigarettes dropped from about 37 mg of tar and 2.7 mg of nicotine in 1954 to 12 mg tar and 0.88 mg of nicotine in 1998. But in that time, changes in farming and cigarette manufacturing have led to more of certain cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco, a rise that might explain the increase in certain types of tumors in recent decades.
Dr. Gil Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, a New York City public health group, says smokers have been duped by tobacco marketing pitches.
"I truly feel sorry for those who believe the tobacco industry spokespersons who deny that the industry marketed, and still markets, light cigarettes with an underlying message of less risk," Ross says.
What To Do
To learn more about tobacco control, try the National Cancer Institute. For more on the harmful effects of smoking, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And here are some tips and the latest news on smoking from the