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Is Rolling Your Own Cigarettes a Healthier Way to Smoke?

Weighing the Current Evidence

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Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

As of Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

Many smokers believe that rolling your own cigarettes is a way to cut back on smoking and/or avoid the harmful chemicals that are in commercially-produced regular filtered cigarettes. But there’s no such thing as a healthy smoking option, and hand-rolled cigarettes are no exception.

Basic Facts about RYO Cigarettes

Roll-your-own (RYO) cigarettes are hand-rolled cigarettes made with loose tobacco. Other names for RYO cigarettes include rollies, roll-ups, burns, and rolls. There are a few ways to make hand-rolled cigarettes, including using cigarette papers and loose tobacco or using rolling machines to make a uniform and more tightly packed cigarette.

Preformed cigarette tubes that can be filled with loose tobacco and smoked—both with and without filters—are also available.

Some common reasons smokers prefer RYO cigarettes include:

  • Cost: A pouch of rolling tobacco and cigarette papers is much cheaper than buying brand name or generic cigarettes.  
  • Image: There is a perception in some social circles that people who roll their own cigarettes are “edgy” and non-traditional.

Many smokers assume that RYO cigarettes are “healthier” because they are more “natural.” The current body of evidence has shown that RYO cigarettes are just as risky to a smoker’s health as regular ones.

Ingredients

While it is true that roll-your-own cigarettes don’t contain the many thousands of chemical compounds regular cigarettes do, they do still contain additives and dangerous chemicals.   RYO cigarette smokers inhale enough toxins to be concerned about, such as:

  • Carbon Monoxide: Carbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic byproduct of the incomplete burning of carbon-containing fuels.  When breathed in, CO interferes with the body’s ability to carry oxygen. Cigarette smoke from any type of cigarette can contain high levels of CO.
  • Nicotine: Nicotine is the addictive substance of​ cigarettes, and it is present in loose tobacco. It’s also a potent poison that has been used in pesticides for decades.
  • Tar: Tar is the sticky brown residue that stains the end of a cigarette filter and other surfaces it comes into contact with. Tar also settles on delicate tissue in the lungs and bronchial tubes of smokers.
  • Tobacco-Specific Nitrosamines (TSNAs): These are some of the most potent carcinogens in tobacco and tobacco smoke.   TSNAs are present in green tobacco (unprocessed tobacco plant leaves) in small amounts, but it is the processing and curing of tobacco that causes high levels. These remain in loose tobacco.

Smokers tend to inhale more tar when smoking RYO cigarettes, due in part to the lack of a filter as well as the need to suck harder to inhale the smoke.

Researchers have studied TSNAs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the urine of both traditional cigarette smokers and RYO smokers. These two groups of chemicals are highly carcinogenic byproducts of cigarette smoking and appear to be present in virtually the same quantities regardless of the type of cigarette smoked.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the U.S. anti-smoking organization Action on Smoking & Health (ASH), puts the differences between RYO and regular cigarettes into perspective: “A useful analogy that has been used is that arguing over the difference between roll-ups and straights is like arguing whether it’s safer to jump out of the 20th or 15th floor of a building—either way, you’re going to hit the ground and die.”  

Health Risks

Scientists and doctors widely believe that the risks to a smoker’s health are the same regardless of whether you’re smoking commercially-produced cigarettes or rolling your own. Just like commercial cigarette smokers, people who smoke hand-rolled cigarettes face a risk of:

  • Cancer of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx
  • Cardiovascular diseases  
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Lung cancer

It’s difficult to assess the overall risk of RYOs because each hand-rolled cigarette is unique and the amount of tobacco will vary, as will how the cigarette is smoked. Also, some smokers use filtered tubes for their RYO tobacco and some don’t.

However, it is safe to say that RYO cigarettes are nothing remotely close to a healthy (or healthier) smoking choice.

RYO cigarettes endanger the health of anyone who smokes them, as well as those who breathe in the secondhand smoke they produce.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re still smoking any type of cigarette, consider quitting sooner rather than later. There are many tools and resources that can help you kick the habit, including support groups, quit aids, and counseling.

Moreover, under the Essential Health Benefits of the Affordable Care Act, the tools for quitting can be provided free of charge through your health insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare.

There's no such thing as a healthy smoking option, and hand-rolled cigarettes are no exception. Learn what they contain and the risks they pose.

Rollies vs Straights: Roll-your-own ‘at least as hazardous as any other type of cigarette’

Experts concerned at misconception that ‘rollies’ are not as damaging to health

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Smokers of “rollie” cigarettes are being “mis-sold” tobacco products which promote an organic or natural image despite being just as devastating to health as manufactured products, public health experts have warned.

Hand-rolled cigarettes have become increasingly popular in the UK in recent years, with the products favoured by young people and other groups on lower incomes because they are cheaper than factory-made “straights”.

However, studies in several countries, including the UK, have found that perceptions that they are more natural, contain fewer harmful additives, and are safer than straights is a major reason people smoke them – a misconception that could be dangerous, experts said.

Fiona Andrews, director of Smoke Free South West, which has run a targeted information campaign on roll-ups after it emerged that 40 per cent of people in the region smoked them, said that rollie smokers could be immune to national quit smoking messages because they believed they were already reducing harms.

“People who smoke roll-ups appear to view themselves as a different kind of smoker – that’s just not the case,” she said, adding that many people had responded to surveys in the area explaining that their preference for rollies was based on an unfounded impression that they were “organic or natural”.

“The packaging buttresses misleading perceptions,” she told The Independent. “They have been packaged to look lighter, and a lot of them use language like ‘natural’ on the strap-lines. It’s a deliberate attempt to promote that image… It’s a real mis-selling of the product”

In an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) today, Richard Edwards, professor or public health at the University of Otago, New Zealand, writes that hand-rolled cigarettes are “at least as hazardous as any other type of cigarette”, citing research that concentration of additives is actually higher in some loose tobacco products than in straights.

His article came as researchers at University College London said that latest surveys revealed that smoking prevalence in England has dropped below 20 per cent for the first time in around 80 years.

However, use of roll-ups appears to be on the rise. In the UK between 1990 and 2010, predominant use of hand-rolled cigarettes among smokers older than 16 increased from two per cent to 23 per cent among women and from 18 per cent to 39 per cent among men.

Professor Edwards said that high use of the products among young people meant that they may be playing “a specific role” in introducing people to smoking, while Fiona Andrews said that a culture of rolling a “perfect cigarette” provided an added appeal to the products and an additional barrier to quitting.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the anti-smoking charity ASH, said that tobacco used for roll-ups contained just as many harmful chemicals of a manufactured cigarette.

“They’re not any more healthy, and you’re not going to die any less quickly if you smoke hand-rolled tobacco,” she said. “A useful analogy that has been used is that arguing over the difference between roll-ups and straights is like arguing whether it’s safer to jump out of the 20th or 15th floor of a building – either way you’re going to hit the ground and die.”

Professor Edwards said that tailored mass media campaigns, such as Smoke Free South West’s “Wise up on roll-ups” initiative, could “correct misconceptions that roll-your-own cigarettes are less hazardous to health or more natural.”

1 /1 Rollies vs Straights: Roll-your-own ‘at least as hazardous as any

Rollies vs Straights: Roll-your-own ‘at least as hazardous as any

Experts concerned at misconception that ‘rollies’ are not as damaging to health

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Experts concerned at misconception that 'rollies' are not as damaging to health