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Roll your own cigarettes are less natural and at least as harmful as factory rolled tobacco

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 11 February 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:f7616
  1. Richard Edwards, professor of public health, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand
  1. richard.edwards{at}

Poorer smokers may favour “roll your own” and many falsely believe that use of loose tobacco is less dangerous than factory made cigarettes, writes Richard Edwards. Specific interventions may be needed to encourage such smokers to quit

The Wise-Up to Roll-Ups campaign in the south west of England has brought to the fore a facet of tobacco smoking that receives far less attention than it should.1 The campaign publicised that some aspects of use of roll your own (RYO) tobacco merit particular concern.

The most common reason (over 80% in most studies) given for smoking RYO cigarettes is that they are cheaper.2 3 Indeed, even when the price per weight of tobacco is similar for RYO and factory made cigarettes, smokers of RYO cigarettes can potentially keep smoking and maintain sufficient nicotine intake by rolling thinner cigarettes. This may help smokers to continue to smoke despite rising tobacco taxes, undermining this key tobacco control intervention.

A perception that could encourage the use of loose tobacco and discourage quitting is that RYO cigarettes might be considered to be more “natural” and less of a health hazard than pre-rolled cigarettes. For example, in Canada, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, between 21% and 40% of RYO smokers have reported that a reason they smoked RYO cigarettes was because they thought that they were healthier than manufactured cigarettes.2 4 However, this perception is false. Epidemiological evidence shows that RYO cigarettes are at least as hazardous as any other type of cigarette,5 and animal research suggests increased addictiveness.6

Any notion that loose tobacco is more “natural” is severely undermined by evidence that the concentration of additives is higher in loose tobacco, at about 18% of dry weight, compared with 0.5% for factory made cigarettes (for British American Tobacco products), as calculated using legally mandated data from tobacco companies operating in New Zealand.7

Some of these additives, including sweeteners such as honey, sugar, dextrose, and sorbitol, often at much higher concentrations than in factory made cigarettes, potentially make the product more acceptable to children. The high concentration of other additives would probably surprise RYO cigarette smokers. For example, RYO tobacco in New Zealand is up to 7.5% propylene glycol by dry weight. Among the 139 individual additives listed for loose tobacco are the less than wholesome sounding trans-benzaldehyde, ethyl butyrate, and phenylcarbinol.

Smoking RYO cigarettes that are made from loose tobacco is common in many jurisdictions though prevalence varies widely. For example, in the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Project four-country study, the prevalence of predominant use of RYO cigarettes among smokers in 2008 was 31% in the UK, 15% in Australia, 9% in Canada, and 6% in the US.2 It was 38% in the New Zealand ITC cohort.4 Prevalence has been increasing greatly in some jurisdictions. For example, in the UK, predominant use of RYO cigarettes among smokers older than 16 increased from 2% to 23% among women and from 18% to 39% among men between 1990 and 2010.8

Use of loose tobacco is not restricted to developed countries. For example, the proportion of smokers smoking RYO cigarettes exclusively or in combination with manufactured cigarettes was 29% in South Africa,9 58% in Thailand, and 17% in Malaysia.10 The high prevalence of use of RYO cigarettes among youth,11 12 further suggests that they may have a specific role in facilitating initiation of smoking.

Evidence shows that use of RYO cigarettes contributes to high rates of smoking observed among disadvantaged groups in many countries. For example, use of RYO cigarettes is reportedly higher among black South Africans,9 Maori in New Zealand,4 and smokers of lower socioeconomic status in Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada.2 4 8 In New Zealand RYO cigarette smokers are also more likely than conventional cigarette smokers to have been diagnosed as having mental health, drug use, and alcohol related disorders, and to have hazardous drinking patterns.4

There is mixed evidence about whether reducing prevalence among RYO cigarette smokers is more difficult than for other smokers. In the ITC Project studies, RYO cigarette smokers smoked more heavily than smokers of factory made cigarettes in New Zealand, Canada, and Australia—but not in the US, Thailand, Malaysia, or the UK.2 4 8 RYO cigarette smokers were less confident in their ability to quit in South Africa,9 and were mostly less likely to be planning or thinking about quitting in the ITC four-country study.2 Data from Malaysia and Thailand were mixed when comparing RYO and factory made cigarette smokers on amount smoked, self rated addiction level, and their beliefs about intention and ability to quit.8 13

So what is to be done? Tobacco control interventions need to be formulated with an awareness of the extent of use of RYO cigarettes, and where this is substantial, specific interventions targeting use of RYO cigarettes may be justified. For example, tobacco tax regimes can seek to correct price differentials by introducing greater increases in excise for loose tobacco, as occurred in New Zealand in 2010.

Another measure might be tailored mass media campaigns to correct misperceptions that RYO cigarettes are less hazardous to health or more natural. This correction could also be achieved through health warnings on packs of RYO tobacco and a requirement to list all the additives in loose tobacco in packet inserts (albeit a very long list). All such interventions should be evaluated to assess impact and enable ongoing refinement.

A more radical move would be to ban the sale of loose tobacco, though legislative priorities to achieve smoke free goals should probably be to implement more critical measures such as a programme of substantial continuous annual tax rises or reductions in tobacco supply.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:f7616


  • I thank Nick Wilson and George Thomson, associate professors from the Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, who provided helpful comments and suggestions on this article.

  • Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.


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