Background. Light cigarettes have been marketed by the tobacco industry as being a healthier smoking choice, a safe alternative to cessation, and a first step toward quitting smoking altogether. Research, however, has failed to show a reduction in smoking-related health risks, an increase in rates of smoking cessation, a decrease in the amount of carbon monoxide or tar released, or a reduction in the rates of cardiovascular disease or lung cancer associated with light cigarette use, compared with regular cigarette use. Nevertheless, more than one-half of adolescent smokers in the United States smoke light cigarettes. This study is the first to investigate adolescents’ perception of the risks associated with smoking light cigarettes, as well as adolescents’ attitudes and knowledge about the delivery of tar and nicotine, health risks, social effects, addiction potential, and ease of cessation with light cigarettes, compared with regular cigarettes.

Design. Participants were 267 adolescents (mean age: 14.0 years) who completed a self-administered questionnaire during class time. After reading scenarios in which they imagined that they smoked regular or light cigarettes, participants estimated the chances that they would personally experience 7 smoking-related health risks and 3 addiction risks. Participants also responded to 14 items concerning their attitudes and knowledge about light cigarettes versus regular cigarettes.

Results. Participants thought that they would be significantly less likely to get lung cancer, have a heart attack, die from a smoking-related disease, get a bad cough, have trouble breathing, and get wrinkles when smoking light cigarettes, compared with regular cigarettes, for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, when participants were asked how long it would take to become addicted to the 2 cigarette types, they thought it would take significantly longer to become addicted to light versus regular cigarettes. Adolescents also thought that their chances of being able to quit smoking were higher with light versus regular cigarettes. Similarly, when participants were asked how easy it would be to quit smoking the 2 cigarette types, they thought it would be significantly easier for them to quit smoking light cigarettes than regular cigarettes. Adolescents agreed or strongly agreed that regular cigarettes deliver more tar than light cigarettes and that light cigarettes deliver less nicotine than regular cigarettes.

Conclusions. Overall, the results of this study show that adolescents hold misperceptions in both their personal risk estimates and their general attitudes about the health risks, addictive properties, and ease of cessation associated with light cigarettes. With a variety of light and ultralight cigarettes on the market, adolescents are led to think that there is a progression of safety levels to choose from when deciding which cigarettes to smoke. This illusion of control over health outcomes contributes to an underestimation of risks associated with smoking light cigarettes and supports these misperceptions. These results are of concern, given evidence suggesting that, if adolescents think they are less vulnerable to smoking-related health risks (ie, lung cancer), then they are more likely to initiate smoking. Furthermore, there is evidence that adolescents are not fully aware of the addictive nature of cigarettes and therefore think that they can experiment with smoking during adolescence without becoming addicted or experiencing any health consequences. The data presented here support concerns regarding smoking addiction; adolescents might be even more inclined to smoke light cigarettes to delay addiction. Without correct information about light cigarettes, adolescents are unable to make informed decisions about their smoking behaviors. The findings presented here strongly suggest that health care practitioners need to talk to their adolescent clients not only about the overall risks of smoking but also about the specific risks associated with smoking light cigarettes and other tobacco varieties, including the potential for addiction and long-term health consequences. Information shared with adolescents about light cigarettes, both individually by health care practitioners and at the population level via counter-advertising campaigns, may be successful in changing current misperceptions, and ultimately light cigarette smoking patterns, among youth.

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