Light cigarettes have filters with small holes drilled into them, which dilutes the smoke and creates a smoother feel. However, the lower tar and nicotine levels may not be realized in practice, and there are no health benefits to smoking light cigarettes. Canada and the EU have banned labeling cigarettes as “light”.
Light cigarettes are a product of the tobacco industry’s attempt to market what appeared to be a safer cigarette in the late 1960s. The difference between light and normal cigarettes is not in the tobacco that each contains, which is identical, but in the filters. Lightweight ones generally have filters covered with white paper rather than the tan or cork-patterned paper of regular cigarettes. This color difference, however, is not critical.
The distinction that matters is more difficult to discern and has to do with ventilation: the paper lining of light cigarette filters has many small holes drilled into it. Under laboratory conditions, these perforations cause the proportion of air in each draw of the cigarette to be higher than in one draw on a regular cigarette. Indeed, for a person accustomed to regular cigarettes, these multiple small punctures can make it difficult to inhale an adequate smoke.
More than 80% of cigarettes sold in the United States are light cigarettes, also called low-yield cigarettes. People may prefer them to regular or full-flavored cigarettes because the diluted smoke they produce seems smoother and less thick, and therefore feels less irritating to the throat. Ultra lights filters have even more holes than lights and therefore create an even thinner smoke. Most full-flavored cigarette brands have lightweight counterparts, while some cigarettes exist only in lightweight or ultra-light versions.
The preference for light cigarettes may also stem from the notion that they are less harmful than regular cigarettes. The smoke is diluted and this results in lower laboratory readings of tar, nicotine and other constituents. Tar measurement in ultralight laboratory tests ranges from 1-6 mg; lights can contain 6 to 15 mg of tar; more than 15mg of tar qualifies a cigarette as regular. Due to the way people actually smoke, however, the lower number of lights and microlights may not be realized in practice.
Fingers and lips can block the perforations left free by the smoking machine used in the tests so that the proportion of air to the smoke is not as high as it would be under ideal conditions. More significantly, people who smoke will do so until their craving for nicotine is satisfied, and that may mean smoking more cigarettes to compensate. There are no demonstrable health benefits of light smoking rather than regular cigarettes. For this reason, Canada and the countries of the European Union have banned cigarette manufacturers from labeling their products as “light”.