Like any other business, tobacco companies are always looking for ways to make their products stand out. Some claim to offer superior flavor, while others try to make their brands seem rugged or sexy. But one strategy is conspicuous for sheer boldness and effectiveness: As concerns about the health effects of smoking mount, many brands are scrambling to appear safer than the typical smoke.
"Light" and "low-tar" cigarettes have become popular among people who worry about their health. Manufacturers of the Omni cigarette raised the stakes when they claimed to have developed a process that reduces key carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds) by 15 to 60 percent.
But is there really such a thing as a "safer" smoke? The answer may surprise you.
Are light and low-tar cigarettes safer than regular cigarettes?
In a word, no. In fact, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) issued a strong verdict against light and low-tar cigarettes. An intensive study found no evidence that such cigarettes are even slightly healthier than average cigarettes. In fact, the very labels seem to be based on a deception.
Cigarettes can claim to be "light" or "low-tar" if they pass a test designed by the Federal Trade Commission. In this test, a machine smokes the cigarettes and measures the levels of "inhaled" tar and nicotine. There's one problem with this approach: Humans are not smoking machines. According the NCI, real smokers tend to compensate when they smoke light cigarettes by taking deeper and more frequent puffs. In the end, they get just as many toxins as they would from a standard cigarette.
The discrepancy between the machine readings and real-life smokers may not be an accident. The NCI reports that some companies have apparently tried to fool the machines by changing the design of the cigarettes. By increasing the amount of paper that covers the filter, for instance, they found they could reduce the number of puffs taken by the machine.
If a cigarette is low in carcinogens, isn't it bound to be safer?
Even if the new cigarettes really do have fewer carcinogens -- and this has yet to be independently verified -- there's no guarantee that they'll protect even one smoker from lung cancer, says Kenneth Warner, PhD, director of the University of Michigan's Tobacco Research Network. "The compounds they've claimed to reduce are important carcinogens, but there are at least 40 others," he says. "Nobody knows what mix of these compounds causes cancer."
For the sake of argument, let's give these new cigarettes the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they really are less likely to cause cancer. But even if the cancer risk dropped to zero, the cigarettes could still be a major health hazard. Cancer accounts for only about 30 percent of all smoking-related deaths in the United States. The rest are caused by heart disease, emphysema, and other ailments. Take the cancer risk out of cigarettes, and you still have a product that can kill hundreds of thousands of people every year.
In the big picture, a low-carcinogen cigarette could actually increase the toll of smoking, says John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). Many smokers who would otherwise have kicked the habit may decide to switch to a "safer" cigarette instead. Likewise, many former smokers may decide to smoke again, he says.
Fortunately, most smokers appear to see through the false claims of a healthy cigarette. Vector Tobacco, the makers of the Omni cigarette, eventually removed the product from the market after having trouble attracting customers with its reduced carcinogen message. Bennett S. LeBow, the chairman of the company that made the Omni cigarette, said it best: "There is no such thing as a safe cigarette." If you're a smoker, don't start looking for a safer brand. Look for a way to quit.
Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide. Low-Tar Cigarettes Are Not a Safer Choice. Updated September 2004. http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/update0904a.shtml
Interview with Kenneth Warner, PhD, director of the University of Michigan's Tobacco Research Network
National Cancer Institute. Risks associated with smoking cigarettes with low machine-measured yields of tar and nicotine. Nov. 27, 2001.
National Cancer Institute. Low-tar cigarettes: Evidence does not indicate a benefit to public health. Nov. 27, 2001.
Vector Group LTD press release. Reduced carcinogen cigarette now available; Vector Tobacco launches Omni nationwide.
National Cancer Institute. Cigarette Smoking and Cancer: Questions and Answers. November 2004. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Tobacco/cancer