Dangerous product gives feds the slip Regulation: Cigars may be fashionable, but their smoke is packed with toxins. Says one expert, "This is what kills you in a house fire."

January 13, 1998|By ALEC KLEIN | ALEC KLEIN,SUN STAFF

Relax. Enjoy a cigar.

So goes the old industry slogan. But it obscures one important fact: Beyond the indigo smoke dancing from the first flare of a cigar, the smoker unleashes more than 4,000 chemical compounds, at least 43 of which cause cancer. Contrary to popular belief, cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes.

"It's kind of like comparing poisonous snakes," said Dr. H. Russell Wright Jr., a Towson otolaryngologist specializing in head and neck surgery.

But unlike cigarettes, cigars have never registered on the regulatory radar screen.

The cigar does not carry a U.S. surgeon general warning label, like cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. Neither are cigars' ingredients disclosed to government health authorities. Unlike cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, cigars are not entirely forbidden from advertising on television and radio.

The cigar also remains unaffected by a proposed nationwide cigarette industry settlement and by threatened U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations.

Only now, as the national resurgence in cigar smoking steamrolls through its fifth year, are officials in Washington awakening to the regulatory omission. "Why didn't I realize that myself?" said Dr. Philip R. Lee, the former assistant U.S. secretary for health, when asked why little has been done.

By all accounts, the failure to monitor cigars is unintended. Regulators were preoccupied with tackling the cigarette industry. The health hazards of cigars were dismissed. The industry was in decline.

A "case of benign neglect," said Donald R. Shopland of the National Cancer Institute, who has worked on every surgeon general report on tobacco.

Cigar makers have done their part to keep themselves unfettered. When necessary, they have testified on Capitol Hill. When forced, they have hired lobbyists in far-flung locales. And they have taken potential legal encroachments seriously, fending off attacks in court, however small.

The impact: Even as consumers are becoming aware of the dangers of cigarettes, the cigar industry, a billion-dollar business fed by an estimated 12 million smokers in the United States, has conjured up an innocuous image of itself.

"We have found the chic trend of cigar smoking somewhat disturbing because people think it's harmless when, in point of fact, it can cause cancer," said Dr. Michael D. Maves, executive vice president of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation Inc. "It's just another form of tobacco."

Overall, cancer death rates among men who smoke cigars are 34 percent higher than among nonsmokers, according to the American Lung Association.

"The health hazards of smoking cigars," said former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, "are the same as those of smoking cigarettes."

Legislative history

The legislative history of tobacco has largely been the history of cigarettes. The 1964 report to the surgeon general, which

established for the first time a formal link between smoking and cancer, used the federal government's imprimatur to focus the public's attention on the hazards of cigarettes.

Nothing was done about cigars. "There was a feeling that cigars were different, even from a health point of view. Cigars were thought of as a less hazardous tobacco use," said Michael Pertschuk, chief counsel and staff director for the Senate Commerce Committee in the 1960s. "I'm sure if the marketing environment was such in the '60s as it is today, we'd certainly have paid attention to cigars."

But they didn't. And that legacy of inaction extended almost through the 1980s, even under Koop, whose austere visage became the face of the anti-smoking movement. Koop felt he lacked the political currency to take on cigars and cigarettes at the same time.

"It is so hard to get these things through," he said. Expanding the warning label to include other tobacco products, such as cigars, was considered but it was "decided that it wasn't worth the political effort and we thought -- we were certain -- we'd be defeated."

Even today, as the government pushes through historic regulations of cigarettes under the most publicly anti-tobacco administration in history, there is little federal interest in cigars.

"Our investigation really focused on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco," said Catherine Lorraine, the Food and Drug Administration's director of policy development and coordination staff. "We've got our hands full at the moment."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, issued a report last year on the rise of teen cigar smoking and called for action to publicize the health risks and deglamorize the product.

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