Are Roll Your Own Cigarettes A "Healthy" Smoking Choice?

Are RYO Cigarettes Better for Me Than Regular Cigarettes?

Person hand rolling a cigarette. Juanma Aparicio/age fotostock/Getty Images

A Verywell Reader Asks:

A friend of mine has started rolling his own cigarettes as a way to cut back on his smoking and avoid the harmful chemicals that are in regular filtered cigarettes. He thinks smoking hand-rolled cigarettes is a healthier choice, but I'm not so sure.

Are roll your own cigarettes any better for a person's health than regular commercially produced cigarettes?

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What are Roll Your Own 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.  Smokers can simply use cigarette papers and loose tobacco to hand roll a cigarette (as shown in the image on this page). Rolling machines are also a common way to make a uniform and probably more tightly packed cigarette. Preformed cigarette tubes are also available, some with filters and some without. These can be filled with loose tobacco and smoked.

Why do People Smoke Roll Your Own Cigarettes?

  • To Smoke Less
    Because smoking a hand-rolled cigarette involves rolling it first, smokers tend to light up less often than with traditional filtered cigarettes.
  • To Appear "Independent or Cool"
    There is a perception in some circles that people who roll their own cigarettes are edgy and non-traditional.
  • Price
    A pouch of rolling tobacco and cigarette papers is much cheaper than buying brand name cigarettes - or even the generic cigarettes marketed today in most countries.
  • A Belief that it's healthier than Commercial Cigarette Smoking
    Research has shown that RYO cigarettes are at least as risky to a smoker's health as regular cigarettes. More on that below.

How do RYO Cigarettes Compare to Commercial Cigarettes?

People often think that smoking RYO cigarettes are a "healthier" smoking choice over traditional cigarettes.

After all, RYO cigarettes are just cigarette papers and loose tobacco, right?  

While it is true that RYO cigarettes don't contain the many thousands of chemical compounds regular cigarettes do, they do contain additives and dangerous chemicals.  RYO cigarette smokers inhale enough toxins to be concerned about.

Some of the worst include:

  • TSNAs
    Tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) are some of the most potent carcinogens  in tobacco and tobacco smoke.  TSNAs are present in green tobacco in small amounts, but it is the processing / curing of tobacco that causes high levels of TSNAs. 
  • Tar
    Tar is the sticky brown residue that stains the end of a cigarette filter and coats surfaces where smoking occurs.  It also settles on delicate tissue in the lungs and bronchial tubes of smokers. Smokers usually inhale more tar while smoking RYO cigarettes than with regular cigarettes, due in part to the lack of a filter, but also because they need to suck harder to inhale the smoke.
  • Nicotine
    Nicotine is the addictive substance in cigarettes, but you might be surprised to learn that is is a potent poison that has been used in pesticides for decades.
  • 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 can contain high levels of CO.

    Researchers have studied TSNAs and PAHs 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.

    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.  

    Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the U.S. anti-smoking organization, ASH puts the differences between RYO and regular cigarettes in 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."

    What are the Health Risks Associated with RYO Cigarettes?

    People who smoke hand-rolled cigarettes face an elevated risk of:

    It's difficult to assess the overall risk because each hand-rolled cigarette is unique. The amount of tobacco will vary as will how the cigarette is smoked. Some smokers used filtered tubes for their RYO tobacco and some don't. 

    It is safe to say, however, that RYO cigarettes are nothing remotely close to a healthy (or healthier) smoking choice. RYO cigarettes endanger the health of anyone who smokes them - or breathes in the secondhand smoke they produce, for that matter.

    The Only "Safe" Cigarette is an Unlit Cigarette. 

    If you're still smoking, consider quitting sooner rather than later. 

    These links will help you get started:

    Reasons Why You Consider Quitting Smoking

    Learn How to Quit Smoking - and Make it Stick

    It never gets easier to stop the longer we smoke, so dig your heels in and quit now.

    Sources:

    National Institutes of Health. National Library of Medicine. A Comparison of Exposure to Carcinogens Among Roll-Your-Own and Factory-Made Cigarette Smokers. July 14, 2009.

    National Institutes of Health. National Library of Medicine. Prevalence and Attributes of Roll-Your-Own Smokers in the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Four Country Survey.

    De Stefani, E et al. Hand-rolled cigarette smoking and risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx .

    Tuyns, AJ, Esteve, J. Pipe, commercial and hand-rolled cigarette smoking in oesophageal cancer .

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