From Midwest Today , December 1999
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently recommended that
Congress require warning labels on cigars. One of the warnings
suggested by the FTC nicely illustrates the artful evasiveness
of public-health officials who seek to shape people's behavior
rather than inform them: "Cigars are not a safe alternative
This admonition sidesteps the question of just how risky cigars are. Public-health officials prefer to avoid that question, because the evidence clearly shows that the typical cigar smoker faces hazards far less serious than the typical cigarette smoker does. In their campaign to scare people away from cigars, tobacco's opponents have repeatedly obscured that fact.
In February 1998, Donald Shopland of the National Cancer Institute told USA Today, "You're smoking a whole pack of cigarettes" when you smoke a cigar. A television ad sponsored by the California Department of Health Services introduced a couple of months later went even further, likening one cigar to three-and-a-half packs of cigarettes.
But is that really true?
The NCI reported that, overall, daily cigar smokers get oral and esophageal cancers almost as often as cigarette smokers. But they face much lower risks of lung cancer, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive lung disease -- the three main smoking-related causes of death. Cigar smokers who inhale deeply face measurably higher risks of heart disease and emphysema (though still not as high as those faced by cigarette smokers).
The upshot can be seen in mortality figures. In a 1985 American Cancer Society study cited by the NCI, men who smoked a cigar or two a day were only 2% more likely to die during a 12-year period than nonsmokers, a difference that was not statistically significant. By contrast, the mortality rate was 69% higher for men who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.
"As many as three-quarters of cigar smokers smoke only occasionally," the NCI noted and "the majority of cigar smokers do not inhale." Since the available data apply only to people who smoke at least one cigar a day, "the health risks of occasional cigar smokers...are not known."
In other words, it has not been determined whether smoking cigars in moderation -- with moderation defined by the way most cigar smokers actually be-have -- poses a measurable health risk. Yet this point was lost on most news organizations. The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read, "Cancer Insti-tute's Warning on Cigars: Just As Bad
As Cigarettes." An Associated Press story said the NCI report was "intended to equate dangers posed by the two products." The UPI declared, "New findings give more weight to warnings that cigars can be at least as hazardous as cigarettes."
Still, the clear difference in risk between cigars and cigarettes was confirmed once again in a study published by The New England Journal of Medicine in June 1999. This time, reporters paid closer attention, probably because even the researchers themselves emphasized that cigars are not nearly as hazardous as cigarettes.