Filter ventilation

Cigarettes with minuscule holes in the filter paper have been making the headlines recently. These ventilated filter cigarettes are at least as harmful as cigarettes without filter ventilation holes. The quantities of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide (abbreviated to ‘TNCO’) that are determined using the standard measurement method prescribed by the EU are in fact lower than those inhaled by smokers. This type of cigarette has been named ‘sjoemelsigaret’ (cheating cigarette) by the Dutch media. What are the consequences of the holes in the filter paper for smokers?

Why do cigarette filters have holes?

In the 1960s consumers became more aware of the harmful effects of smoking. Manufacturers responded to this by marketing ‘light’ cigarettes as a ‘healthier alternative’. The filters in these ‘light’ cigarettes contain very small ventilation holes through which extra air is drawn in when the smoker takes a puff of the cigarette. These ventilation holes appear to have a favourable effect on the concentration of harmful substances as they thin the smoke. Smokers often therefore perceive these cigarettes as being lighter and/or having a milder taste. Nowadays almost all cigarette filters have ventilation holes. The amount of additional air drawn in varies from 10 to 80 percent and depends on the number, the size and the position of the holes.

Filters of cigarettesVentilation holes in the filter paper of various cigarettes, enlarged using a microscope. The actual length of the red line is 1 millimetre.

Effects of filter ventilation

Smokers adapt their smoking behaviour

Smokers adapt their smoking behaviour (consciously or unconsciously) in order to inhale the amount of nicotine to which they are accustomed. If they smoke a cigarette with (more) ventilation holes, the concentration of nicotine per puff will be lower. In order to achieve the desired amount of nicotine they will inhale more deeply, take more and/or longer puffs or even smoke more cigarettes in a day. Smokers will also cover some of the ventilation holes, consciously or unconsciously, with their fingers and mouth while they are smoking. As a result they will inhale at least as many harmful substances as with cigarettes without ventilation holes.

Composition of the smoke changes

The extra air taken in with cigarettes that have filter ventilation also affects the composition of the smoke. The tobacco combustion process changes and, as a result, certain harmful substances are released in larger quantities. If smokers adapt their behaviour in order to achieve the same amount of nicotine as they would get with an unventilated cigarette, they will thus take in more of the other harmful substances. So it is important to consider the quantity of harmful substances in cigarette smoke in relation to the amount of nicotine.

Smokers’ perception is affected

Consumers do not always have the full picture about the risks related to cigarettes with filter ventilation. Some people think that they are less harmful to one’s health as these cigarettes have a milder taste and were originally sold as ‘light’ products. But as a result of the holes in cigarette filters there are more harmful substances in the smoke and smokers inhale more deeply and possibly even smoke more. The terms ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarette are therefore disputed and can no longer be used in the EU. Cigarettes with (more) ventilation holes may still be sold. They are often recognisable by packaging with lighter colours that looks like the former ‘light’ packaging.

Health effects

Harmful substances in cigarette smoke

Ventilation holes in cigarette filters mean that smokers inhale at least as many harmful substances as when there are no holes in the filter. These are substances that are also present in the smoke of cigarettes without filter ventilation, such as tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, tobacco-specific nitrosamines (NNN and NNK), acetaldehyde, acrolein. These substances are known to be very harmful to one’s health as they are toxic, carcinogenic and/or addictive.

Higher risk of cancer

It has been known for quite some time that cigarette smoking results in an increased risk of various types of cancer. Recent research has also demonstrated a link between the use of cigarettes with filter ventilation and a specific type of lung cancer, namely the adenocarcinoma.

Quantities of harmful substances in smoke

Test methods

The quantities of harmful substances in cigarette smoke can be measured using a smoking machine. The ISO method that is currently used to determine TNCO values underestimates the quantity of harmful substances to which smokers are exposed. The “Canadian Intense” method is closer to human smoking behaviour as the ventilation holes in the filter are taped and inhalation is deeper and more frequent. RIVM already uses the Canadian Intense method for scientific research.

Read more here about the measurement of harmful substances in smoke and the effect of filter holes.

Relevance for the consumer

Cigarettes with filter ventilation are no less harmful than cigarettes whose filters have no ventilation holes. As a result of the change in smoking behaviour (conscious or unconscious) in order to achieve the desired amount of nicotine smokers actually inhale more harmful substances. The TNCO values that are determined in the test therefore do not provide an insight into the harmfulness for smokers.

RIVM has created a database containing the TNCO contents provided by manufacturers for cigarettes that were on the Dutch market in 2015. These show which cigarettes have low TNCO contents when they are smoked in the test according to the ISO method. These cigarettes probably have a lot of filter ventilation holes through which smokers possibly inhale more harmful substances than stated.


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Cigarettes in smoking machine

Filter ventilation

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