Why 'Light' May Not Mean a Safer Cigarette

A recent study contradictions perception that "light" or "low-tar" cigarettes are less harmful than the full-strength versions

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A car from the 1930s is a charming, if mechanically obsolete, relic. On the other hand, a technology developed 70 years ago to establish levels of tar and nicotine in cigarettes is still in use in federal laboratories — and determines the ingredient labels on today's cigarettes. And as a report in this week's issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute contends, that creaky cigarette "smoking machine" may be responsible for the dissemination of serious consumer misinformation. Why do smokers still believe they are "healthier" when they smoke Marlboro Lights as opposed to Reds? Because the Federal Trade Commission's cigarette machine, established when everyone smoked uniform, unfiltered cigarettes, puffs away on each cigarette with unwavering strength, ignoring the variations in modern smoking behaviors. When smokers drag on so-called "light" or "low-tar" cigarettes, the study concludes, they tend to pull more deeply and more often, overcompensating for the lower levels of chemicals in the cigarette — and sending a blast of toxins to their lungs.

While the FTC has been made aware of this discrepancy before, they've done little to address it, beyond assuring Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in 1998 that they were "investigating" their current labeling methods. Health officials and doctors aren't feeling particularly patient, and are pressing for a major overhaul in the agency's procedures. "When full review of the FTC's process comes out, we suspect it will show current methods are not helpful at all," says Judith Wilkenfeld, Chair of the Committee for Tobacco Product Change in Washington, D.C. "We're long overdue for an overhaul of the way we measure cigarettes' content and the way we report the results to the public." And in the meantime, smokers can practice inhaling a little less forcefully.