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Switching to low-tar cigarettes halves chance of quitting smoking


November 10, 2009

 Smokers who switched to a low-tar, light or mild brand of cigarette had about a 50 percent lower chance of giving up smoking, according to a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study in the November issue of Tobacco Control.

"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, M.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study and assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Internal 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," added Dr. Tindle.

The findings are based on more than 31,000 smokers in the United States who participated in the National Cancer Institute- and CDC-sponsored Tobacco Use Supplement and were quizzed in 2003 about whether they had switched to a milder/low-tar brand of cigarette and their reasons for the switch. 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 non-smokers.

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, had switched to a lighter brand, with one in four citing flavor as the primary reason. Close to one in five of those surveyed said they had switched for a combination of better flavor, wanting to smoke a less harmful cigarette, and the intention to give up smoking completely.

Those 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 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 make up 84 percent of U.S. market share.

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

Co-authors of the study include Dr. Saul Shiffman and Dr. James F. Bost, both from the University of Pittsburgh; and Dr. Anne M. Hartman from the National Cancer Institute.


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