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

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

A reader asks:

Do you know whether it's any better for a person's health to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes?

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.


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.  First, one can simply use cigarette papers and loose tobacco to hand roll a cigarette (as shown in the image on this page). Rolling machines can also be bought that make a uniform and probably more tightly packed cigarette. Preformed cigarette tubes are also manufactured, some with filters and some without.

Are Roll Your Own Cigarettes a More Natural Smoking Choice?

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 thousands of chemical compounds regular cigarettes do, they're not a safe smoking alternative.  RYO cigarette smokers inhale enough toxins to be concerned about.

 Some of the worst include:

  • Tar
    Tar is that sticky brown substance that stains the end of a cigarette filter and coats surfaces where smoking occurs.  Ever clean the windows of the car you smoked in and they come away a nasty brownish-yellow?  Most of that is tar.
  • Nicotine
    Most smokers think of nicotine as the addictive substance in cigarettes, which it is.  It's also a 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.
  • TSNAs
    Tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) are the most potent carcinogens  we know of to date in tobacco and tobacco smoke, TSNAs are present in green tobacco and also produced during processing of the tobacco into a finished product. 

Smokers usually inhale more tar while smoking RYO cigarettes than with regular cigarettes, party due to the lack of a filter, but also because they need to suck harder to inhale the smoke.

Other Reasons People Smoke RYO 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.
  • Price
    A pouch of rolling tobacco and cigarette papers is much cheaper than buying brand name cigarettes - or even the generic cigarettes marketed today.

    Health Risks Associated with RYO Cigarettes

    People who smoke hand-rolled cigarettes have an increased risk of the following:

    In fact, RYO cigarette smokers have a higher risk of esophageal, mouth, throat and larynx cancers than smokers of commercially produced cigarettes.

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

    More reading: Quit Smoking 101 - an Educated Quit is a Successful Quit


    De Stefani, E et al. Hand-rolled cigarette smoking and risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx Cancer 1992 Aug 1;70(3):679-82

    Tuyns, AJ, Esteve, J. Pipe, commercial and hand-rolled cigarette smoking in oesophageal cancer International Journal of Epidemiology 1983 Mar;12(1):110-3

    American Cancer Society. Are Any Cigarettes Safe to Smoke? Accessed March 2016.

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