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"Light" Cigarettes Carry Heavy Lung Cancer Risk, Ohio State Study Finds

smoking cigarette

Light cigarettes are marketed by the tobacco industry as a healthier option - but a new study from The Ohio State University shows they may have actually contributed to the rise of a certain type of lung cancer.

Researchers at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center worked with five other university cancer centers to examine why the most common form of lung cancer has increased over the last 50 years.

“We’ve been noticing over the last 15 to 20 years that while we thought that lung cancer should be going down with people smoking less, some types of lung cancer, one particular type, was going up,” says Cancer Center deputy director Peter Shields.

The study found a correlation between the popularity of ventilation holes, which are commonly found on light cigarettes, and growing rates of lung adenocarcinoma. Researchers drilled down on an observation from a 2014 Surgeon General report that says cigarette design could contribute to increasing lung adenocarcinoma rates.

“So currently in the United States, the tobacco companies cannot advertise a cigarette as an ultra-light or regular, but the holes are still there,” Shields says. “And we’re extending in the early research to saying that there are holes on all the cigarette filters and that they should come out, because those holes are actually making a more dangerous cigarette product.”

Shields says those holes allow smoke to mix with air as someone inhales, which changes the way the tobacco burns.

“It burns slower, it burns cooler, it makes more cancer-causing chemicals. Also, because the holes are there mixing smoke with air, people get less nicotine when they inhale,” Shields says. “So instead, they make up for it by puffing more, taking more smoke in their mouth, more of those cancer-causing chemicals go into their lungs, and that’s the linkage to the adenocarcinoma.” 

Shields says more research is needed to confirm that the addictive nature of cigarettes wouldn’t increase if ventilation holes were eliminated. He hopes the study opens up a conversation with the FDA to get started on a regulatory process. 

"We're not regulators. I don't want to pretend to understand to understand what regulators do," Shields says. "They have their laws and rules and regulations, but we think this could easily start the process."

University of Minnesota, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Virginia Tech, Harvard University and Medical University of South Carolina are conducting additional research.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.