This article originally appeared on Tonic.
Fifty years ago, tobacco companies started putting tiny holes in the paper filters in their cigarettes. Based on some dubious science, the companies claimed that these new "high-ventilation" cigs were healthier and smoother, pitching them as "low tar" and "light." That kind of labeling was eventually outlawed, but the tiny holes remain—they're now found in virtually every cigarette smoked today. Now, a new research review shows that not only do those tiny holes not make cigarettes any healthier, but they've likely contributed to a rise in a certain kind of lung cancer.
The cancer is called adenocarcinoma, and it occurs deep in the lungs. Today it's the most common type of lung cancer, but that wasn't always the case. Over the last 50 years, other types of lung cancer have decreased as smoking rates have fallen but, strangely, cases of lung adenocarcinoma have increased.
Researchers at the The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and five other universities wanted to find out why. They pored through the existing literature—chemistry and toxicology studies, human clinical trials and epidemiological studies, and even internal tobacco company documents—and uncovered what they believe is the culprit behind the rates of lung adenocarcinoma.
Research shows that filter ventilation holes make the tobacco burn more slowly and at a lower temperature, which actually leads to relatively higher amounts of toxic substances in the smoke. Next comes a one-two punch: The filter blocks some of the addictive nicotine and the holes dilute the smoke with air, so some smokers compensate by taking longer, deeper drags to get more nicotine. The result? More chemicals getting forced deeper into the lungs where adenocarcinomas more frequently occur. Far from being a safer way to smoke, the filters (and their holes) actually make cigarettes more dangerous.
"Our data suggests a clear relationship between the addition of ventilation holes to cigarettes and increasing rates of lung adenocarcinoma seen over the past 20 years," Peter Shields, a lung medical oncologist and deputy director of OSUCCC - James, said in a statement.
The team wants the Food and Drug Administration to either regulate the holes or remove them entirely. Shields wrote in editorial for The Hill that the FDA is well within its jurisdiction to do so. "The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA)," he writes, "gives the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products and issue 'product standards' when evidence shows that it is necessary to protect public health."
Shields added in a release that his team believes nixing the holes "would drive down the use and toxicity of conventional cigarettes, and drive smokers to either quit or use less harmful products." Possibly because cigarette smoke wouldn't be as smooth without them, but more research is needed to confirm that removing the holes wouldn't make cigarettes more addictive or increase the amount of chemicals in the smoke.
It would seem a no-brainer decision. Smoking rates among adults have generally declined since the late 90s (though with a slight uptick in 2016), and earlier detection for lung cancer has improved. Still, it's the country's leading cancer killer—it will claim more than 150,000 American lives this year. That number could possibly be lowered just by changing how cigarettes are filtered. Let's hope the FDA is paying attention.