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Low Tar Cigarettes No Safer Than the Rest

New research shows lung cancer risk is the same

FRIDAY, Jan. 9, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Smoking low tar cigarettes won't protect your health and shouldn't assuage your guilt.

A study in the Jan. 10 issue of the British Medical Journal found the risk of lung cancer was the same among people who smoke medium tar, low tar or very low tar filtered cigarettes.

And not surprisingly, those who smoked non-filtered cigarettes with high tar ratings, of at least 22 milligrams, had a higher risk of lung cancer.

"There is some protection compared to the worst-case scenario [high tar non-filtered cigarettes], but the some protection is not very comforting," says Dr. Norman Edelman, consultant for scientific affairs for the American Lung Association. "There is still a huge increase in death rates from cancer if you smoke those supposedly safe cigarettes. There is no safe cigarette, and there is no way to hedge your bets."

Previous studies have compared medium tar cigarettes with high tar, non-filtered cigarettes and have examined whether or not cigarette pack labels match the actual amount of tar in the cigarette, but none had compared cigarettes with so many different tar ratings.

"What has been missing is a large, well-conducted study of lung cancer risk that compares a regular cigarette with brands that have lower machine ratings, irrespective of behavior modifications," says study co-author Dr. Michael Thun, head of epidemiologic research at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.

Thun's study compared the risk of lung cancer among smokers of very low tar filtered (7 milligrams or less), low tar filtered (8 to 14 milligrams), and high tar non-filtered (22 milligrams or more) brands with the risk among those who smoke conventional medium tar (15 to 21 milligrams) filtered brands.

A total of 364,239 men and 576,535 women aged 30 or over were followed for six years to see if there was a relation between the type of cigarette smoked and death from lung cancer. The participants were either nonsmokers, former smokers or current smokers.

All the smokers had a higher risk of lung cancer than people who had never taken up the habit or who had quit. Those who smoked very low tar and low tar brands had the same risk as those smoking medium tar brands.

Men and women who smoked non-filtered cigarettes with tar ratings of 22 milligrams or more, however, had higher risks of lung cancer.

Previous studies have shown smokers often modify their behavior (by inhaling more deeply, covering up ventilation holes or holding the smoke in the lungs longer) to compensate for lower amounts of nicotine or tar. The current findings seem to support this pattern.

What's more, the study authors point out, different inhalation patterns may actually increase the surface area of the lungs exposed to carcinogens and may have contributed to the increase in the incidence of certain types of lung cancer.

"The concern the health community has is that smokers may defer quitting because they are misled into believing that ultralight or light cigarettes are less hazardous," Thun says. "They are also misled by labels like light and mild. In our study, the lung cancer risk was identical in people who smoke ultra light and light."

In the United States and the United Kingdom, according to late 1996 figures, non-filtered cigarettes made up no more than 1 percent of cigarette sales, while in China they represented about 20 percent of all cigarettes sold, in France about 15 percent and in Europe 6 percent to 20 percent.

More information

For more on quitting smoking, visit the American Lung Association or the American Cancer Society.

SOURCES: Michael Thun, M.D., head, epidemiologic research, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; Norman Edelman, consultant, scientific affairs, American Lung Association; Jan. 10, 2004, British Medical Journal
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