Light cigarettes, also advertised as "low-tar," "mild," or "ultra-light" cigarettes, have special filters designed to dilute cigarette smoke. Many smokers choose light cigarettes over "regular" or "full-flavor" cigarettes because they think they’re less harmful. Although light cigarettes may feel smoother and lighter on the throat and chest, they aren’t healthier and don’t reduce the health risks related to smoking. Because there is no such thing as a safe cigarette, the only way to reduce a smoker's health risks (and the risk to others through second-hand smoke) is to quit smoking altogether.
Light cigarettes have recently been the focus of federal lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court. Plaintiffs in these cases allege that tobacco companies defrauded them into thinking light cigarettes were safer than regular cigarettes. The defendant tobacco companies argue that the term "light" refers to a lighter-tasting cigarette, and that consumers should understand the term's intended meaning. As of 2014, Altria is appealing a $10.1 billion light cigarette verdict from 2003.
Light Cigarette Tar and Nicotine Numbers
Tar and nicotine yield numbers can be found on cigarette packs. These numbers serve as a reference point for the amount of tar and nicotine a smoker may inhale. However, these numbers don’t necessarily reflect the precise amount a smoker inhales, for a number of reasons.
First, the "nicotine yield" numbers are generated by smoking machines, which "smoke" every brand of cigarettes the same way. Smokers, unlike machines, crave nicotine and therefore may inhale more deeply; take larger, more rapid, or frequent puffs; or smoke a few extra cigarettes each day to get enough nicotine to satisfy their cravings. When smokers "compensate," they may end up inhaling more tar, nicotine, and other harmful chemicals than the machine-based numbers suggest.
Second, light cigarettes have tiny pinholes on the filters. These "filter vents" dilute cigarette smoke with air when "puffed" by smoking machines, resulting in artificially low measurements of tar and nicotine levels. But the filter vents are placed only millimeters from where smokers may place their lips or fingers. By blocking these vents, a light cigarette basically becomes a regular cigarette.
Lastly, when cigarette makers increase the length of the paper wrap that covers the outside of the cigarette filter, the number of puffs decreases during the machine test. The tobacco under the wrap is still available to the smoker and isn't burned during the machine test. As a result, the machine measures less tar and nicotine levels than is available to the smoker.
Health Effects of Light Cigarettes
According to the National Cancer Institute, light cigarettes provide no benefit to a smoker's health. Smokers who switch from regular cigarettes to light cigarettes are likely to inhale the same amount of hazardous chemicals and remain at high risk for developing smoking-related cancers and other diseases. There is no evidence suggesting that switching to light cigarettes will help smokers quit. Quitting smoking eliminates or reduces the risk of dying from tobacco related disease, as well as the risk of lung cancer, heart attacks, stroke, and chronic lung disease.
Getting Legal Help
As mentioned above, a number of light cigarette lawsuits have been filed in federal court, with plaintiffs claiming that tobacco companies defrauded them into thinking that light cigarettes were a safer alternative to regular cigarettes. If you or a loved one has suffered illness that may be attributed to smoking light cigarettes, you should first contact your doctor or other healthcare professional. You may also wish to meet with an experienced attorney to discuss your legal options and your potential right to a legal remedy for any harm caused by light cigarettes.
To learn more about an attorney's role in a dangerous products case, see the Get Legal Help with a Defective Product Injury article. To find an experienced attorney, use the "Find a Lawyer" tool on this page, or visit the FindLaw Lawyer Directory.
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