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'Light' Cigarettes Hurt Quit-Smoking Effort

Study Shows Switching to 'Light' Cigarettes May Undermine Resolve to Stop Smoking Habit
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 5, 2009 -- Want to quit smoking? Your chances may be better if you don't switch to a "light," "ultra-light," or "low-tar" cigarette before you try.

In a newly published study, smokers who traded in their so-called "full-flavor" cigarettes for cigarettes with these labels made more attempts to kick the habit than other smokers, but were almost half as likely to actually do it.

Health officials have long recognized that brands labeled light, ultra-light, mild, and low-tar are no less likely than other cigarettes to cause smoking-related diseases like lung cancer and heart disease; that's because people tend to smoke more of them and inhale more deeply.

But it has not been clear if making the switch to these '"light" brands had an impact on smoking-cessation rates.

As many as 84% of the cigarettes sold in the U.S. have labeling that suggests they are lower in tar and nicotine, according to the latest figures from the Federal Trade Commission.

"We found that switching for any reason to a so-called lighter cigarette appears to be associated with a lower chance of quitting, especially when people switched with the intent of quitting smoking," study researcher Hilary Tindle, MD, PhD, tells WebMD.

Switching to 'Light' Cigarettes

Tindle and colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Health Care analyzed data from a 2003 survey of smokers sponsored by the CDC and the National Cancer Institute.

Their sample included roughly 31,000 smokers or former smokers.

The analysis revealed that:

  • Just over 12,000 of those surveyed (38%) reported switching to a "lighter" cigarette at some time. 
  • Switchers were 58% more likely to have tried to give up smoking in the year prior to completing the survey. 
  • The overall odds of giving up smoking were 46% lower among those who switched than among those who stuck with their original brands.

Smokers who switched to what they perceived as a lighter cigarette for health reasons were the least likely to quit smoking.

Rather than helping smokers who want to kick the habit succeed, switching may undermine their resolve by giving them a false sense that smoking is safe, Tindle says.

"Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of smokers and nonsmokers still believe these cigarettes are healthier even though we have known for many years this is not true," she says.

'Light' Labels on the Way Out

While much of the public may still believe the "lighter" claims, federal officials no longer do.

Last April, Congress passed the most sweeping reform legislation ever to target the tobacco industry, giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products.

As a result, words such as light, ultra-light, mild, and low-tar will no longer be permitted on cigarette packaging starting next June.

But Matt Myers, who is president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, tells WebMD the tobacco companies are already working on ways to circumvent the new law.

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