Are Stogies Safer Than Cigarettes?

WE ALL KNOW the rap on cigarettes: they're addictive, they kill you and they stink. There's no question that cigars smell bad, but do they cause addiction and death? Researchers haven't amassed a lot of data on those issues. After all, Americans consume only 4.6 billion cigars each year, compared with 470 billion cigarettes. Since cigar packages say nothing about health hazards, and cigar smokers don't usually inhale, the dangers may seem negligible. But the truth is, stogies kill. ""We can't say exactly how many deaths are attributable to cigars,'' says Michael Erickson, head of the smoking-and-health office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ""But tobacco smoke is tobacco smoke. There's no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen.''

Because cigarette smoke is slightly acidic, the nicotine it carries can't enter the bloodstream directly through the tissue that lines the mouth. You have to inhale to get the effects. Cigars are not only larger (a big one contains more tobacco than a whole pack of cigarettes) but richer in noxious combustion products. Even a standard, half-ounce stogie can generate 7 times as much tar as a cigarette, 11 times as much carbon monoxide and 4 times as much nicotine. And because cigar smoke is so alkaline, many of its constituents enter the blood- stream directly through the mouth. ""Inhaled cigarette smoke produces a faster kick,'' says Dietrich Hoffman, a tobacco chemist with the American Health Foundation, ""but cigar smokers end up just as dependent on nicotine.''

That's not to say they encounter all the same health hazards. Cigarette smokers are roughly 20 times more likely than nonsmokers to develop lung cancer, and four times more likely to suffer from coronary artery disease. Even the most dedicated cigar smokers experience only a threefold increase in lung-cancer risk (mainly from living around their own fumes) and a doubling of stroke and heart-attack risk. But that's just the beginning of the trouble. Cancers of the mouth, larynx and esophagus are all associated with cigar smoking - and those risks are amplified if you drink alcohol while you puff. Researchers have also identified pipe and cigar smoking as risk factors for pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal. If that's not enough to discourage you, keep in mind that the abrasive particles in a cigar's outer wrapping can erode teeth, and that the 23 poisons and 43 carcinogens in its smoke can affect bystanders as well as smokers. ""If you have to breathe secondhand smoke,'' says James Repace, a government scientist who advises the National Cancer Institute (NCI) on indoor-air quality, ""cigar smoke is a helluva lot worse than cigarette smoke.''

Despite their hazards, cigars are probably preferable to cigarettes. In a newly published study involving nearly 22,000 subjects, British researchers compared mortality rates for three classes of men: nonsmokers, current cigarette smokers and former cigarette smokers who had switched to cigars. The results, published in the June 27 British Medical Journal, show that the switchers enjoyed a 50 percent reduction in risk of death from lung cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive lung disease - mainly because they smoked less after they switched. Yet their death rate from those illnesses was still 70 percent higher than that of nonsmokers.

Unfortunately, recovering cigarette smokers aren't the only ones taking up stogies. Millions of American teenagers are toying with them - and as every tobacco executive knows, hooking kids is the key to healthy sales. But cigar makers may soon face more resistance. NCI scientists are putting the final touches on a comprehensive report on the health effects of cigars, and health advocates are demanding that the government start regulating them the way it does cigarettes. Stogies will no doubt carry a surgeon general's warning one of these years. In the meantime, choose your poison carefully.

tobacco: approx. .68g

nicotine:        .5-1.4mg

tar:             .5/18mg   

carbon monoxide: .5-18mg
tobacco: approx. 8g

nicotine:        1.7-5.2mg

tar:             16-110mg

carbon monoxide: 90-120mg

All trens-cigars, Rollerblades, tattoos-move through predictable stages or states of cool, according to Lawrence Samuel of marketing consultans Iconoculture, Inc. Once mainstream, trends either die, mutate into microtrends or cement into national pastimes. Cigars, Samuel says, will recede next year, but the trend won't disappear. The four stages:

Stage: Fringe (Pre-cool)

Cigar: Pre-1995 The Ritz-Carlton in Boston holds the first cigar "smoker' in 1985. Inner-city youth load marijuana into Phillies Blunt cigars; rappers light 'em up in music videos.

Who: Elites in the banking, investment and legal fields and members of the hip-hop community

Why and Where: Flouting political correctness at "cigar nights" and subverting dominant culture in the 'hood

Other trends: Fringe now Beedies, the organic cigarettes from India; Nevada's Burning Man Festival ("Mad Max" meets Woodstock); road luge (sledding meets pavement)

Stage: Trendy(Cool)

Cigar: 1995 Yuppies, coastal hipsters and other so-called "early adopters" latch on and puff up the circulation of magazines like Cigar Aficionado (for boomers) and Smoke (Gen-X)

Who: Women discover smokers; celebs, a new prop; college students, yet another bad habit

Why and Where: Gender:benders and ' the cool-obsessed lounge in cigar bars and smoke-friendly eateries

Other trens: Trendy now De-stressing at Native American sweat lodges; tea salons; fountain pens; for kids, grotesquely labeled Fukola sodas by Eat Me Foods

Stage: Mainstream (Post-cool)

Cigar: 1996 Corporate America cashes in (with cigar-vending machines, cigar auctions and accessory mania--including Calvin Klein cigar cutters and Cigar Aficionado ottomans

Who: Joe and Jane Six-pack in the bleachers and the guy sporting Dockers in the next cubicle

Why and Where: Sheer ubiquity, peer pressure and lure of a "nice vice" (naughty lite) push cigars into suburbia

Other trends: Mainstream now Extreme sports, body piercing, tattoos, martinis, Sundance Film Festival, "alternative music," gourmet coffee, microbrews

Stage: Mutation (Neo-cool)

Cigar: 1997 Kids join in, and entrepreneurs including smugglers of illegal Cubans-- cash in. Real smokers buy only pre-embargo Cubans. The neo-coolest move to pipes.

Who: Suburban "bad boy" teens and the multi-cultidown-town alterna-crowd

Why and Where: Desire to reinvent or backlash against trend produces extreme Variations; back to the fringe

Other trends: Mutation now Body branding (tattoos), air surfing (extreme sports), cosmopolitans (martinis), rotary phones (high-tech), Slamdance Film Festival

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