The unhealthy draw of a cigar

Health Matters

Picture Winston Churchill, former British prime minister and statesman: does he have a big cigar in his mouth? For a more contemporary image, consider Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) of the X-Men franchise: he’s just as likely to be chomping on a cigar. What is it with cigars that associates them with power, fame and sophistication?

One part of the reason is the use of celebrity endorsers. These have included Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Snoop-Dog and even Wayne Gretzky. Photos of Madonna and Michael Jordan have also been used to normalize cigar smoking. And with the re-opening of Cuba to American consumers, it is probable that cigars will experience a resurgence in popularity and demand.

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Some of those quitting cigarettes switch to cigars partly due to a perception that cigars are less risky. This misconception exists because cigar smokers tend to indulge less often — this may not be true of small, cigarillo-style cigars. And many claim they don’t inhale, in any case. These two fallacies lead cigar smokers to health problems, disease and death, just as they do for any smoker.

Choosing a cigar is not a better choice than a cigarette. Tobacco is tobacco and even if there are minor differences in how they are consumed, the results are not any better. It should come as no surprise that cigar smoke has the same toxic and carcinogenic constituents found in cigarette smoke. Burning tobacco is an efficient delivery system for benzene, formaldehyde, tar, carbon monoxide, cancer-causing nitrosamines, nitrogen oxides and ammonia among the thousands of chemicals in tobacco smoke.

Many cigar smokers explain that they are safer because they only partake once a day or less, but that is an uninformed excuse once you know that a large cigar typically contains as much tobacco as an entire pack of cigarettes and contains at least 100 to 200 milligrams of nicotine; cigarettes contain about eight mg. Next, the claim is that cigar smokers don’t inhale. That is irrelevant or untrue on many levels. First, many do actually inhale, especially former cigarette smokers who choose small, filter-tipped cigars which make it easier to inhale deeply. Even if you don’t inhale, chemicals come into contact with lips, tongue and throat and are absorbed through mucous membranes. Because cigar smoke dissolves readily in saliva, it travels easily down the esophagus when swallowing. In addition, cigar smokers do inadvertently inhale because of the cloud of smoke that encircles their head and face while puffing on a cigar.

The health problems arising from cigar smoking are no less serious than for any form of tobacco. There is cancer, especially cancers of the mouth, larynx and esophagus, plus a higher risk for cancers of the lung, pancreas and bladder. Lung disease is another concern, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Then there’s heart disease, problems with teeth including gum disease, stained teeth, bad breath and tooth loss. Still not convinced? How about the fact that smokers are twice as likely to have erectile dysfunction as non-smokers?

We may think cigars are links to power, wealth and fame, but they are just as likely to be linked to oral cancer, black teeth and lung disease … not so glamourous after all. There is no such thing as safe tobacco, however it is delivered.

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