Smoke Screen: Light cigarettes reduce odds of quitting

Smokers hoping to curb health risks by turning to light cigarettes are less likely to quit smoking than people who smoke regular cigarettes, according to an analysis of census data.

Although they have been marketed as delivering less tar and nicotine to smokers, light cigarettes have been shown to offer no health advantage over regular cigarettes. Nevertheless, “lights” make up 85 percent of all cigarettes sold in the United States.

To study the use of light cigarettes and their impact on smoking cessation, researchers analyzed a 2000 U.S. Census Bureau survey of more than 32,000 people, 12,000 of whom were smokers. The researchers took into account such factors as socioeconomic status, sex, and health history.

More than one-third of the smokers reported that they had regularly smoked light cigarettes to reduce health risks, says study leader Hilary Tindle of the University of Pittsburgh. These people were about 54 percent less likely to have quit smoking than were people who had smoked regular cigarettes, Tindle’s team reports in the August American Journal of Public Health.

In addition, the likelihood that light-cigarette smokers would report having permanently quit shrank with age. For example, light-cigarette smokers age 65 or older were 76 percent less likely to have quit than their regular-cigarette-smoking peers.

“Some research reveals that light cigarettes were put on the market to target health-conscious smokers, and if they hinder quitting, [as] our study supports, that’s a big problem,” Tindle says. More than 30 million adults in the United States have switched to light cigarettes under the false belief that the move would reduce their health risks, she estimates.

The assumption that light cigarettes are low in tar and nicotine is misguided, says Peter Shields of the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C. Smokers who switch to light cigarettes compensate for the reduced amount of nicotine by smoking more often, inhaling more smoke per draw, or smoking past the filter. Light cigarettes actually produce more carcinogens than regulars, and that difference has changed the type of lung cancer smokers have acquired in the past 20 years, Shields says.

Still, most smokers believe that light cigarettes are a healthy alternative to regular ones, says Andrew Hyland of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. “There’s not a shred of evidence here that suggests that lights are good for you,” he says. “If anything, they can be extraordinarily bad for people trying to quit.”

The new research doesn’t show that smoking light cigarettes causes the failure to quit, but such a study would be almost impossible to conduct because it would require smokers to randomly switch cigarettes over time, Tindle says.

The study does show that some groups of people with high rates of having quit—those with higher socioeconomic status and a history of cardiovascular disease, for instance—were more likely than other groups to have cited health reasons for smoking lights. This overlap might mean some potential quitters instead keep smoking lights, and “that’s a concern,” Tindle says.

From the Nature Index

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