Low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes?

Originally Published: January 19, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 21, 2008
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Alice,

I was wondering if you could tell me what the cigarette with the lowest tar and nicotine is on the market or if there is one with no nicotine?

Thanks,
Mr. Camel

Dear Mr. Camel,

This is a more complicated question than you might think. While there are some brands that put low-nicotine and low-tar varieties on the market, smoking these cigarettes does not guarantee that you will ingest smaller amounts of either. And here's why:

Nicotine and tar content is measured by a smoking machine that smokes every cigarette in exactly the same way. But studies show that when people smoke low-nicotine cigarettes, they tend to inhale more deeply and more frequently than they would a regular cigarette, compensating for the lower nicotine. So although the cigarette might contain less, the smoker actually inhales the same amount of nicotine as in a normal cigarette. There's a similar problem with low-tar cigarettes, which achieve their low tar status by putting tiny vents in the sides of the filters to dilute the inhaled smoke with air. People can easily cover these vents with their fingers, knowingly or not, resulting in the inhalation of just as much tar as a regular cigarette. 

Because nicotine occurs naturally in tobacco, there is not really a nicotine-free cigarette. There are some cigarette varieties that do not add nicotine to their product, or add less than others, but whenever tobacco's involved, nicotine will be present. And the tar you refer to is a build-up of the hundreds of chemical substances found in smoke that condense to form a brown, sticky mass. These chemicals are also always present in cigarettes, regardless of the brand smoked.

Because exposure to nicotine, tar, and other harmful chemicals is inevitable when smoking, if you are concerned about these products you might want to consider quitting altogether. Columbia students can take advantage of the Smoking Cessation Program run by Primary Care Medical Services (PCMS). In this program, PCMS staff offers education and counseling about a variety of quitting modalities such as support groups, relaxation techniques, acupuncture, nicotine replacement, medication, and counseling, and will help you to create a stop smoking program that fits your life. If you're not a Columbia student, you can check out Smokefree.gov and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which maintain websites full of information on how to quit, what to expect, and resources for finding counselors, groups, and other forms of support.

If quitting is not what you're after, buying the low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes is certainly an option. But remember, it's not necessarily what variety you smoke, but how you smoke it — shorter, less frequent puffs will deliver less nicotine and less tar. While your intentions to find a low-nicotine, low-tar product are healthy, the only way to be truly free of these chemicals is to give up the smokes altogether.

Take care,

Alice