Nearly one in four smokers mistakenly believes that smoking so-called "less harmful" herbal or reduced nicotine cigarettes is less harmful to their health, according to a new survey.

Researchers found nearly 40 percent of smokers had heard of "less-harmful" cigarettes. Of those who could name a brand, 25 percent thought they were better for you than ordinary cigarettes.

But like the "light" cigarettes that preceded this latest generation of "less harmful" cigarettes, researchers say there's no evidence that they are any safer than regular cigarettes.

Meanwhile, the same survey shows only one in 10 smokers believes that smokeless tobacco products, such as snuff and chewing tobacco, are less harmful than regular cigarettes.

Read WebMD's "Teens Say Light Cigarettes Are Healthier"

Smokers Misinformed about 'Safer' Cigarettes

In recent years, a growing number of cigarette manufacturers have introduced products that claim to be less harmful by reducing exposure to toxins in cigarette smoke. Although there is no scientific proof to back up those claims, researchers say they're concerned that cigarette smokers may perceive the new products as less harmful because of how they're marketed.

"We have previous examples of filters and 'lights' both promoted explicitly and implicitly as reducing the health risks of smoking. Most smokers already use them although there is no evidence they really deliver fewer toxins or reduce health risk," says researcher Richard O'Connor, PhD, of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., in a news release.

Health officials at the Institute of Medicine have also expressed concern that the newer, so-called "less harmful" cigarettes might encourage smokers to keep smoking or entice former smokers to take up the habit again.

Read WebMD's "Smoking Cigarettes Affects Brain Like Heroin"

Smokers' Beliefs

In the study, which appears in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 adult cigarette smokers in the U.S. in 2003 to learn about smokers' awareness and beliefs regarding these "safer" cigarettes.

The results showed that 39 percent of cigarette smokers had heard of "less harmful" cigarettes, and 27 percent could name a specific brand of such cigarettes. These included cigarettes with varying levels of nicotine, herbal cigarettes, and "smoke-free" cigarettes. Smokers over the age of 55 were more likely to have heard of these products.

Of those who were familiar with "less harmful" cigarettes, 25 percent said they believed the products were less harmful to their health than ordinary cigarettes and 23 percent weren't sure.

More than half of the smokers surveyed were currently smoking a "light" or "ultra light" brand of cigarette, and those who thought smoking a "light" cigarette reduced harm were also more likely to believe the new "less harmful" cigarettes reduced harm.

Read WebMD's "10 Overlooked Reasons to Quit Smoking"

Smokeless Tobacco Also Misunderstood

The survey also looked at smokers' awareness of smokeless tobacco products (SLT), such as snuff and chewing tobacco. More than 80 percent of cigarette smokers were aware of such products, but only 10 percent believed they were less harmful than regular cigarettes.

"Here, smokers are misinformed in the opposite direction," write O'Connor and colleagues. "Epidemiologic data suggest that SLT products sold in the United States are significantly less dangerous than cigarettes."

"These data suggest that smokers are confused and misled by cigarette marketing, even when such marketing does not include overt health messages," they write. "Companies looking to market reduced-exposure tobacco products should be required to demonstrate convincingly that smokers will not be confused or misled by the marketing claims."

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: O'Connor, R. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, August 2005; vol 29: pp 85-90. News release, Health Behaviors News Service.