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Many Smokers Unaware of Cigarettes' Risk

They're also unaware of how nicotine patches work, survey finds

THURSDAY, Dec. 9, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The majority of smokers don't know the facts about what's in their cigarettes and how these ingredients may be harming them.

Most smokers also don't realize there are no health benefits to filtered and low tar cigarettes, nor do they understand the ins and outs of nicotine medications such as patches, according to the results of a survey appearing in the December supplemental issue of Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

The survey also found that less than half of the people who smoked the leading brands of light and ultra-light cigarettes knew they have the same amount of tar as regular cigarettes.

These findings could help fine tune ways to help people quit, the researchers said.

"The basic first step you do in any kind of behavior change is to make sure people are fully informed," said lead researcher K. Michael Cummings, chairman of the department of health behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, in Buffalo, N.Y.

"Everybody knows at a general level about the dangers of smoking but there are very specific things people don't know -- like the issue about light cigarettes," he added.

For instance, a lot of people worry that using nicotine patches might cause a heart attack. "This is a myth," said Cummings, who also runs the New York State Smokers' QuitLine, a hotline that offers smoking-cessation tips.

The researchers surveyed 1,046 adults by telephone in 2001.

More than two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents didn't know if -- or incorrectly believed that -- nicotine causes cancer. In fact, nicotine makes people addicted to cigarettes but the cancer-causing effect comes courtesy of smoke and tar from the burned tobacco and paper.

"It's the nicotine that people are addicted to, not the tobacco smoke," explained Dr. Ronald Blum, director of the Beth Israel Cancer Center in New York City. "We're incredibly ignorant about smoking."

Among the respondents, 39 percent didn't know or had incorrect answers about the health risks of smoking, and 53 percent didn't know or were incorrect about the risks posed by nicotine. What's more, 65 percent didn't know or were wrong about low-tar and filtered cigarettes, as were 56 percent about nicotine medications.

The vast majority of people surveyed were unaware of the contents of cigarette smoke: 79 percent didn't know it contained lead; 86 percent did not know it contained radioactive materials; 67 percent didn't know it contained ammonia; and 66 percent didn't know it contained arsenic, the researchers said.

On the positive side, 77 percent wanted more information on the health risks of smoking; 83 percent wanted to know more about the chemicals found in cigarette smoke; 68 percent wanted information on screening for diseases caused by smoking; and 63 percent wanted information on ways to quit.

Smokers of light cigarettes were particularly ignorant about the dangers posed by those brands, the researchers said. More than 61 percent thought filters made the cigarettes safer; 59 percent believed that advertised reductions in tar made them safer; and 49 percent believed advertised reductions in nicotine increased the safety of the cigarettes, the survey found.

Slightly less than one-third of smokers realized their cigarettes contained vent holes designed to dilute the amount of tar and nicotine in the smoke. While theoretically this makes good sense, the reality is that people often cover the vents with their fingers, especially when they don't know the vents are there, Cummings said. Filters also cool the hot smoke, leading to longer, deeper puffs and more tar and nicotine, he said.

What Cummings and others are hoping is that more correct information will lead to more people reassessing their habits.

"Many people who smoke have really mixed feelings about it and it's a very complicated subject, but certainly all of the data supports that quitting takes sustained motivation which can come from any number of places," Blum said. "It could be economic, it could be health, it could be peer pressure, and certainly part of it can come from an awareness of what this addiction is about -- nicotine, tobacco, tar dose that you get. These are facts. These aren't myths. These are scientific facts."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on smoking and quitting.

SOURCES: K. Michael Cummings, Ph.D., chairman, department of health behavior, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, N.Y.; Ronald Blum, M.D., director, Beth Israel Cancer Center, New York City; December 2004 Nicotine & Tobacco Research
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