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Low-Yield Cigarettes

After the landmark 1964 Surgeon General's Report on the health consequences of smoking, cigarette manufacturers began heavily marketing cigarettes labeled "light," "low," and "mild" (or similar descriptors).1 Cigarettes with "light/low/mild" labels delivered less tar or nicotine in standardized machine measurements.1,2 They were often referred to as "potentially reduced-exposure products," and advertisements implied that they were safer than regular or "full-flavor" cigarettes.1,2

However, due to passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009, manufacturers are now prohibited from manufacturing for sale or distribution any tobacco products for which the label, labeling, or advertising contains the descriptors "light," "low," or "mild" or any similar descriptors.3

The tar yields in cigarettes can be measured on standardized smoking machines.1 Examination of tar yields and health risks did not provide evidence that low-yield cigarettes are less harmful to health than regular cigarettes.1

There is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke, and there is no safe tobacco product.4

Cigarette Descriptors and Design

Labels with descriptors, such as "light," "low," or "mild" can no longer be used.3

In the past, the tobacco industry categorized low-yield cigarettes using measurements of tar on standardized smoking machines.1

  • Cigarette brands that yielded approximately 1–6 milligrams (mg) of tar were historically called "ultra light."
  • Those with approximately 6–15 mg of tar were called "light."
  • Brands yielding more than 15 mg of tar were called "regular" or "full flavor."

The following cigarette design changes made over the past decades affected the tar and nicotine measurements:1,2,4

  • Addition of different size and density filters
  • Ventilation holes in the cigarettes to bring in air and dilute the smoke measured
  • Chemical additives in the paper and/or tobacco
  • Tobacco (i.e., using different types, blends, and curing methods)

Changes in cigarette design have not made cigarettes safe.1,5

  • No strong scientific evidence exists indicating that changes in cigarette design have resulted in a decrease in the diseases caused by smoking cigarettes.

Compensatory Smoking

Most smokers are addicted to nicotine and consequently may compensate when smoking low-yield cigarettes in order to take in more nicotine than estimated by a smoking machine.1,5,6,7

  • Many smokers block the ventilation holes, thus inhaling more tar and nicotine than measured by machines.
  • Many smokers inhale longer, harder, and more frequently when smoking low-yield cigarettes to get more nicotine.
  • Smokers may get as much or more tar and nicotine from cigarettes with low-yield ratings as from regular cigarettes because of the ways they compensate when smoking them.

Smokers Who Use Low-Yield Cigarettes

  • Many smokers consider smoking low-yield cigarettes, menthol cigarettes, or additive-free cigarettes to be safer than smoking regular cigarettes, even though no strong scientific evidence exists to substantiate these beliefs.1,2,5
  • Many smokers may have switched to low-yield brands instead of quitting; smokers may be misled by the implied promise of reduced toxicity underlying the marketing of such brands.1,5,6
  • Information on sales of U.S. cigarettes indicates that there were decreases in tar and nicotine from 38 mg of tar and 2.7 mg of nicotine in 1954 to 12 mg of tar and 0.95 mg of nicotine in 1993. Tar and nicotine levels have remained stable since then.4

Health Risks of Smoking

  • The evidence indicates that changing cigarette designs over the last five decades, including filtered, low-tar, and "light" variations, have not reduced overall disease risk among smokers and may have hindered prevention and cessation efforts.4
  • There is insufficient evidence to determine whether novel tobacco products reduce individual and population health risks.4
  • The overall health of the public could be harmed if the introduction of novel tobacco products encourages tobacco use among people who would otherwise be unlikely to use a tobacco product or delays cessation among people who would otherwise quit using tobacco altogether.4


  1. National Cancer Institute. Risks Associated with Smoking Cigarettes with Low Machine-Measured Yields of Tar and Nicotine. Smoking and Tobacco Control Monograph 13. Bethesda: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, 2001 [accessed 2013 June 11].
  2. Institute of Medicine. Clearing the Smoke: Assessing the Science Base for Tobacco Harm Prevention. Washington: National Academy Press, 2001 [accessed 2013 June 11].
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Guidance for Industry and FDA Staff: Use of "Light," "Mild," "Low," or Similar Descriptors in the Label, Labeling, or Advertising of Tobacco Products. Rockville (MD): U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Tobacco Products, 2010 [accessed 2013 June 11].
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease. A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2010 [accessed 2013 June 11].
  5. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Light and Low Tar Fact Sheets.
    [PDF–180.59 KB]Washington: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, 2010 [accessed 2013 June 11].
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Reducing Tobacco Use: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2000 [accessed 2013 June 11].
  7. Public Health Law Center. Light/Low-Yield Cigarettes. St. Paul (MN): Public Health Law Center, 2010 [accessed 2013 June 11].

For Further Information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Office on Smoking and Health
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO

Media Inquiries: Contact CDC's Office on Smoking and Health press line at 770-488-5493.