Marlboro Lights Smokers Misinformed

    • December 8, 2004

How many light or ultra-light cigarettes would someone have to smoke to get the same amount of tar as from one regular cigarette?

The correct answer is one, but only a handful of those who smoked Marlboro Lights, the leading cigarette sold in the United States, were able to give the correct answer to that question in a national survey published today.

"The vast majority of Marlboro Light smokers don't know that a typical smoker gets the same amount of tar and nicotine from one light or ultra-light cigarette as from one regular, non-filtered cigarette," according to K. Michael Cummings, Ph.D., MPH, of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. Cummings' research group conducted the national survey of adult smokers. More than 46 percent said two or more light cigarettes produced the same amount of tar as a regular cigarette and another 40 percent did not know the correct number. Only 13 percent answered the question correctly.

The national survey, published in the December supplemental issue of Nicotine & Tobacco Research, was funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program (SAPRP) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Other questions in the survey of 1,046 adult smokers conducted in 2001 asked about filters and the effects of tar and nicotine.

"More than 61 percent of Marlboro Lights smokers believe that filters have made their cigarette less dangerous; 59 percent believe that the advertised reductions in tar have made their brand less dangerous; while 49 percent believe that the advertised reductions in nicotine have made their cigarette less dangerous.

"You cannot blame smokers for those beliefs because public health experts have also assumed that less tar would mean less disease, but real tar levels inhaled by the smoker have not gone down," according to Cummings. His study cites tobacco industry documents showing that cigarette manufacturers have long been aware that the tar and nicotine that a smoker actually inhaled from a light cigarette was much higher than the government's machine-based measurement of tar and nicotine listed in cigarette ads. Cummings recommends that cigarette manufacturers be required to support a remedial educational campaign to inform smokers about the real tar and nicotine levels inhaled by smokers.

"It was logical to assume that if real tar levels had gone down, so would lung cancer rates. But the evidence from studies funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and others does not demonstrate that. The reason is that so-called light cigarettes are designed in ways that allow smokers to adjust their puffing behavior so that they end up getting about the same amount of tar and nicotine as they would get smoking a full-flavored cigarette," according to Cummings.

What smokers get with a light cigarette is an illusion that they are smoking a safer cigarette. The reality is that smokers who switch to a light cigarette do not get less tar, less nicotine, or lower disease risk. However, our survey shows that many smokers think otherwise. If smokers were really informed about light cigarettes there would be no market for them, Cummings said.

"According to the survey, only about 3 in 10 smokers recognized that the filters in their cigarettes contained vent holes. The ventilation holes are important because the vents help dilute the amount of tar and nicotine contained in smoke as measured by a smoking machine. The problem is that smokers can unknowingly block the vents with their fingers or lips while holding the cigarette. This is more likely to happen when people can't see the vents. Filter vents are deceptive in another way since they cool the hot smoke allowing the smoker to take bigger, longer puffs, resulting in larger doses of tar and nicotine than predicted by a smoking machine, which smokes according to a standard protocol," Cummings said.

Tobacco industry documents cited in the Cummings study show the cigarette manufacturers knew that "the smoker is...apparently defeating the purpose of dilution...he is certainly not performing like the standard smoking machine."

The Roswell Park Cancer Institute researcher said he chose to focus on the responses of Marlboro Lights smokers because it is the leading cigarette sold in the United States, which meant that the findings of the study would be directly applicable to the largest share of current smokers. He also chose Marlboro Lights because it has explicitly promoted the idea that smokers of light cigarettes would get lower tar, although recently packs of those cigarettes have included an insert, warning smokers not to assume that cigarette brands using descriptors such as ultra-light, light, medium and mild are less harmful than full-flavored cigarettes.


The Substance Abuse Policy Research Program ( ) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a $54 million program that funds research into policies related to alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. Based in Princeton, N.J., RWJF is the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. It concentrates its grant making in four goal areas: to assure that all Americans have access to quality health care at reasonable cost; to improve the quality of care and support for people with chronic health conditions; to promote healthy communities and lifestyles; and to reduce the personal, social and economic harm caused by substance abuse— tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs. To this end, the Foundation supports scientifically valid, peer-reviewed research on the prevention and treatment of illegal and underage substance use, and the effects of substance abuse on the public's health and well-being.