rolling tobacco

Rolling Tobacco: Are Rollies Healthier Than Straights?

Many smokers have turned to hand-rolled tobacco thinking it's a healthier alternative when in fact roll-ups are just as hazardous as generic cigarettes

In recent years, veteran smokers, as well as newbies, have switched to rolling tobacco (scientific name Nicotiana tabacum) in an attempt to counteract the harmful effects of classic cigarettes - the word around town is that hand-rolled tobacco is healthier. But is it really? 

Despite the urban myths, hand-rolled cigarettes, or rollies as they are called, are equally harmful to our health, although it's understandable why so many people might believe otherwise. We will present the most common misconceptions about rolling tobacco  and their fact-based counterparts. 

Myths about rolling tobacco

The fact that smoking is a harmful, more often than not lethal, habit is no secret to people around the world, including smokers themselves. If in the past, adds featuring medical professionals, athletes, celebrities, cartoon characters, Santa and even babies were used to proclaim the merits of various cigarette brands - as flabbergasting as it may sound to the younger generation, this was the norm back then.

Nowadays, due to legislative measures across the world,  there is more awareness about the dangers of smoking but despite this, 87% of all lung cancer deaths are still attributed to smoking. Considering the gloomy statistics regarding smoking-related deaths, it's no wonder that  people turned to what they considered "safer" and "more natural" alternatives.   Misinformation and word of mouth (which often complement each other) have contributed to the creation of many myths about smoking rolling tobacco, which in reality should not exist. 

1. It's healthier 

The first argument in favor of dropping the standard cigarettes, and the biggest one in favor of rollies, is the fact that they contain fewer additives and toxic substances. This way, the idea that you're only smoking the tobacco leaves without any of the harmful substances has been perpetuated to the point where  people believe hand-rolled tobacco is innocuous. 

2. Less addictive 

A logical consequence of the above argument, if you were to listen to uninformed opinions, would be that rolling tobacco is not so processed, and therefore it has less addictive properties compared to traditional cigarettes ("straights" are they are known). When phrased like this,  many end up believing that rollies are easier to quit. 

3. You smoke less

This is a half-truth  that we will explore in more depth in the second section of the article. It is true, however, that hand-rolling cigarettes result in smoking less compared to having a packet readily available with pre-rolled cigarettes. A lot of this has to do with the ritualistic nature of cigarette rolling, which takes longer when compared to just picking up your brand packet and taking a pre-rolled out. 

facts about rolling tobacco
Rolling your own might appear healthier but it's just as dangerous as classic cigarettes

Facts about rolling tobacco

Scientists and doctors worlwide believe that the risks to a smoker's health are the same irrespective of whether you're smoking commercially-produced cigarettes or rolling your own.

1. It's just as hazardous as generic cigarettes

Those opting to switch to rolling tobacco are driven by the  false belief that their health will be less impacted  compared to standard brand cigarettes. A little known fact is that loose tobacco has just as much carbon dioxide as conventional cigarettes and just as many toxic additives. 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 from any cigarette contains high levels of CO and the risk of lung, throat, and mouth cancer is present with all tobacco. An interesting analogy was made by Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the anti-smoking charity ASH, which vividly describes the magnitude of the situation - "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.”

2. Equally addictive

The substance responsible for addiction is nicotine - a stimulant and potent parasympathomimetic alkaloid that is naturally produced in the nightshade family of plants. Because of the perceived mild nature of rollies, smokers have a false sense of self-efficacy - "I can quit whenever I want"  a phrase which every smoker has repeated to themselves much like a mantra. Paradoxically, this lack of urgency is what means that rolling tobacco smokers might never actually give up since it's "better." 

3. You smoke less tobacco - not less harmful additives

Cigarette packs have pre-rolled ciggies, while the whole appeal of rollies is that you have to make it yourself and in the process, you use more paper, which results in more carbon monoxide.  On top of everything, loose tobacco smokers tend to inhale more profoundly which refutes the previous myth that they smoke less.

While the number of rollies might be slightly lowered, the amount of tar and other toxic substances is the same if not higher.  These cancer-causing chemicals are called carcinogens, and some include: 

  • Nicotine  (the addictive drug that produces the effect people are looking for and one of the harshest chemicals in tobacco smoke)
  • Hydrogen cyanide

  • Formaldehyde

  • Lead

  • Arsenic

  • Ammonia

  • Radioactive elements, such as uranium  (come from the fertilizer and soil)

  • Benzene

  • Carbon monoxide

  • Nitrosamines

  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

  • Cotinine, which is what nicotine becomes once it gets metabolized into the smokers' bodies.

Richard Edwards, professor of public health at the University of Otago, New Zealand, stated that mass media campaigns, such as the “Wise up on roll-ups” initiative, could “correct misconceptions that roll-your-own cigarettes are less hazardous to health or more natural.”