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Safe cigarette? Don’t be a fool

Mild or not, don’t go by labels. The amount of tar and nicotine you inhale depends on how much you smoke, and crucially — the length of the drag, Sanchita Sharma finds out...

health and fitness Updated: Jan 10, 2009 21:57 IST

More than what you smoke, it’s how you smoke that determines how much tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide you are inhaling each time you light up. Simply put, people smoking ‘ultra mild’ or ‘light’ cigarettes usually end up inhaling the same amount of tar and nicotine than those smoking normal cigarettes.

The amount of tar and nicotine listed on the package does not indicate the amount a smoker actually gets from a cigarette. “There is no such thing as a safe or safer cigarette,” says Dr G.K. Rath, head of the cancer centre at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “Tobacco is a deadly poison and it kills whatever the amount. Smoking milds or lights does not reduce the risk of disease since smoking machines that do the measuring do not take into account the way smokers adjust their smoking behaviour,” says Dr Rath.

How you smoke a cigarette can significantly affect the amount of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide you get from your cigarette as smokers of ‘low tar’ or ‘light’ cigarettes tend to inhale deeper, longer and more frequently, say experts. “Most smokers are wrong in believing that reducing the amount of tar in a cigarette reduces their health risks, which include several cancers, lung diseases and heart disease, among others,” he adds.

The Federal Trade Commission, that had been testing tar and nicotine levels in the US, announced in November last year that the tar and nicotine testing method was ‘misleading’ and ‘flawed’. They announced that they were dropping it because the tobacco industry used the labelling to convince smokers that lighter cigarettes were safer.

“We don’t want tobacco companies to wrap their misleading tar and nicotine ratings in a cloak of government sponsorship,” said FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz in a statement. “In other words, the FTC will not be a smokescreen for tobacco companies’ shameful marketing practices.”

In India, public health experts say mandatory labelling would actually work. “No one knows what goes into tobacco products in India. Mentioning tar and nicotine levels would at least put some check on the ingredients,” says Monika Arora, director, HRIDAY, an NGO that works in the area of public health among adolescents and youth.

“Cigarettes contain 10 mg of nicotine, but a smoker absorbs about one mg from every cigarette,” says Arora. When a smoker inhales, the tar carries the nicotine to the lungs, where it is absorbed quickly. Nicotine reaches the brain about eight seconds after the smoke is inhaled. People who chew tobacco get their nicotine rush in about three to five minutes.

The amount of tar and nicotine a smoker inhales can also increase if the smoker unintentionally blocks tiny ventilation holes in cigarette filters that are designed to dilute smoke with air. “Smoking ‘low tar’ or ‘light’ cigarettes does not eliminate the health risks of smoking. If you are concerned about the health risks, stop smoking,” says Dr Rath.