“Low-yield cigarettes” are those that tobacco manufacturers label “light,” “low,” or “mild.”
Tobacco advertisements once implied that “low-yield” cigarettes were safer than regular or “full-flavor” cigarettes.1,2 However, low-yield cigarettes are not less harmful to health than regular cigarettes.1
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 now prohibits manufacturers from selling or distributing any tobacco products that have “light,” “low,” or “mild” on their labels.3
There is no risk-free level of exposure to tobacco smoke, and there is no safe tobacco product.4
Cigarette Descriptors and Design
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 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
- Changes in cigarette design have not been scientifically shown to lead to a decrease in diseases caused by smoking cigarettes.
Most smokers are addicted to nicotine. Smokers may compensate when smoking low-yield cigarettes in order to take in more nicotine.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. However, no strong scientific evidence exists to support these beliefs.1,2,5
- Many smokers may have switched to low-yield brands instead of quitting.1,5,6
- Tar and nicotine levels decreased from 1954 to 1993.
- Tar decreased from 38 mg in 1954 to 12 mg in 1993; nicotine decreased from 2.7 mg to 0.95 mg.
- Tar and nicotine levels have remained stable since 1993.4
Health Risks of Smoking
- Changes in cigarette designs over the last five decades have not reduced overall disease risk among smokers. In fact, they might have hindered prevention and cessation efforts.4
- Overall health of the public could be harmed if low-yield cigarette products
- encourage tobacco use among people who would otherwise be unlikely to use a tobacco product, or
- delay cessation among people who would otherwise quit using tobacco altogether.4
- 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 2017 Jul 21].
- Institute of Medicine. Clearing the Smoke: Assessing the Science Base for Tobacco Harm Prevention. Washington: National Academy Press, 2001 [cited 2017 Jul 21].
- 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 2017 Jul 21].
- 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 2017 Jul 21].
- Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Light and Low Tar Fact Sheets.
[PDF–180.59 KB]Washington: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, 2010 [accessed 2017 Jul 21].
- 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 2017 Jul 21].
- Public Health Law Center. Light/Low-Yield Cigarettes. St. Paul (MN): Public Health Law Center, 2010 [accessed 2017 Jul 21].
For Further Information
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Office on Smoking and Health
Media Inquiries: Contact CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health press line at 770-488-5493.
- Page last reviewed: July 21, 2017
- Page last updated: July 21, 2017
- Content source: