Is Rolling Your Own Cigarettes a Healthier Way to Smoke?
Weighing the Current Evidence
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.
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.”
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.