Switching to Low-tar Cigarettes Halves Chance Of Quitting Smoking, Pitt Study Finds

Issue Date: 
February 1, 2010
Hilary TindleHilary Tindle

Smokers who switched to a low-tar, light, or mild brand of cigarettes had about a 50 percent lower chance of giving up smoking, according to a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study.

“Forty-three percent of smokers reported a desire to quit smoking as a reason for switching to lighter cigarettes. While these individuals were the most likely to make an attempt, ironically, they were the least likely to quit smoking,” said Hilary Tindle, lead author of the study and assistant professor of medicine in Pitt’s School of Medicine.

“It may be that smokers think that a lighter brand is better for their health and is therefore an acceptable alternative to giving up completely,” Tindle added.

The findings, reported in the November issue of Tobacco Control, are based on more than 31,000 smokers in the United States who participated in the Tobacco Use Supplement to the Current Population Survey, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey is a key source of national and state data on smoking and other tobacco use in U.S. households.

Survey participants were asked in 2003 whether they had switched to a milder/low-tar brand of cigarette and their reasons for switching. They also were asked if they had attempted to give up smoking altogether during the previous 12 months and whether they currently identified themselves as nonsmokers. The total sample included more than 29,000 people who were current smokers and almost 2,000 who reported having given up the habit for at least 90 days prior to the survey.

In all, 12,000 people, or 38 percent, said they had switched to a lighter brand, with one in four citing flavor as the primary reason. Almost one in five of those surveyed said they had switched for a combination of better flavor, the desire to smoke a less harmful cigarette, and the intention to give up smoking completely.

Those smokers who switched brands were 58 percent more likely to have attempted to give up smoking between 2002 and 2003 than those who stuck with their brand. But this same group was actually 60 percent less likely to be successful in quitting smoking.

In the entire study group—including those who tried to quit and those who did not—the overall odds of giving up smoking were 46 percent lower among those who switched to a lighter cigarette for any reason than among those who stuck with their original brand.

Low-tar cigarettes deliver amounts of tar, nicotine, and other substances that are comparable with regular cigarettes, yet they comprise 84 percent of the cigarette market in the United States.

“Previous research has shown that smokers interpret the term ‘light’ to mean less toxic, an association that manufacturers have sought to exploit in advertising,” Tindle said.