In Brief

Two-thirds of American smokers opt for "light" or "ultra light" cigarettes, mistakenly believing that these products carry significantly less health risk than regular cigarettes. In fact, studies have shown that because smokers typically compensate for lower tar and nicotine by smoking more cigarettes, taking longer and more frequent puffs and covering ventilation holes in filters with their fingers, lips or tape, light and ultra light products are no less dangerous than regular cigarettes.

To set the record straight, psychologists Lynn Kozlowski, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University; Janine Pillitteri, PhD, of Pinney Associates, Inc., and Saul Shiffman, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh are testing strategies to educate smokers about lights and to motivate them to quit. Their efforts, they hope, will enable smoking-cessation advocates to mount a campaign of public health messages.

One of the biggest barriers to changing smokers' minds about light cigarettes, the researchers have found, is the fact that lights indeed taste and feel smoother than regular cigarettes. At a May 25 meeting of the ENACT (Effective National Action to Control Tobacco) coalition, a group of tobacco control advocates that includes APA, Shiffman described recent research testing radio and television advertisements intended to educate smokers about the health hazards of light and ultra light cigarettes.

"Trying to fight a direct, physical sensation with probabalistic, quantitative medical information and epidemiology is a losing battle," Shiffman says. "[Smokers] would fall back to something much more basic: what the product feels like."

The research has demonstrated that the messages that most successfully change smokers' beliefs and nudge them toward quitting are those that emphasize that even though light cigarettes feel smoother, they deliver as much tar and nicotine as regular cigarettes.

"We really have come to the point where there is a clear, winning strategy," Shiffman observes. "And that strategy is to focus on the issue of sensation, so that people can believe the message by learning to put less faith in their own sensations."

Recent results also suggest, he notes, that smokers appear to give greater credence to messages that they perceive as educational, rather than as aimed at selling a product, such as smoking-cessation patches.

Although debunking myths about light cigarettes is only one step toward eradicating smoking, Kozlowski says, it's an important one.

"If you think of smoking addiction as a behavior that rests on a stool, for some people, the 'I smoke a light' argument is one leg of the stool. Now there's an opportunity to knock that leg out."

--S. CARPENTER