WASHINGTON -- People who switch from regular cigarettes to brands marketed as "low tar" or "light" do not reduce their chances of getting smoking-related diseases, the National Cancer Institute said Tuesday.
"The use of these 'decreased risk' cigarettes have not significantly decreased the disease risk," an NCI report concluded.
It found some people who switched to low-tar brands smoked more to get the same amount of addictive nicotine, since the ratio between tar and nicotine generally remains the same in all cigarettes. Tar is a carcinogen that is produced when tobacco is burned. It helps deliver nicotine to smokers.
The report found that people who switched to light brands typically thought they were reducing their risk of developing smoking-related disease and that tobacco companies contributed to those assumptions through advertising and marketing campaigns.
The study also found that cigarettes that yielded low tar and nicotine levels when tested on Federal Trade Commission machines had higher levels when smoked by people, partly because they take larger puffs and smoke more of the cigarette. In addition, smokers can inadvertently cover ventilation holes in the filter that are designed to lower tar levels.
"When they do that, they get a full dose of tar and they don't have any risk reduction," said Dr. David Burns, the study's lead author.
On its Web site, Philip Morris Inc., the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, acknowledges the imprecision of the federal testing system and denies implying low-tar cigarettes are safer than others.
"We agree that there is no safe cigarette," company spokesman Brendan McCormick said. McCormick added that the company does not want terms such as "low-tar" or "light" banned from cigarette packs but would support greater regulation of their use.
The authors reviewed five decades of scientific data examining the health effects of low-tar cigarettes. They found there has been a 60 percent drop in the amount of tar in cigarettes sold in the United States since the 1950s, but that cancer rates among smokers have not dropped.
Health advocates say that has to stop.
"There is no significant difference in health risks for smokers who smoke lower-tar cigarettes than for smokers who smoke full-flavored cigarettes," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "It's time to ban the terms 'light' and 'low-tar,' because they are misleading consumers."
The effort to produce and market low-tar cigarettes gained momentum in the 1960s, after public health advocates said cigarettes with less tar would produce less cancer.
In 1981, Burns helped edit a report by the U.S. surgeon general recommending that smokers switch to light cigarettes if they could not quit.
"That was our recommendation at that time. It turns out to have been a bad mistake," Burns said Tuesday.
The report says public health officials who backed the production of light cigarettes failed to take into account the highly addictive nature of nicotine and the difference in actual tar and nicotine levels taken in by people and testing machines.
The FTC has been using the same methods to measure tar and nicotine yields since the 1960s.
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Philip Morris: http://www.philipmorrisusa.com/
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