Government report links cigars to lethal ailments Quitting is only way to cut risks, study says

April 10, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF

In its fiercest indictment of cigars yet, the U.S. government concludes in a long-awaited report that they can be just as lethal as cigarettes, a finding likely to spur new rules to restrict the sale and promotion of cigars.

The government found that cigar smoking can cause cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx and lung. The report also said that regular cigar smokers who inhale have an increased risk of coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The government called the national boom in cigar smoking "disturbing" and the rise of teen-age usage "alarming." Despite their hazards, cigars have long been exempt from strict federal regulations.

That could end now that the study has exploded the myths about the safety of smoking cigars. Contrary to popular belief, the study concluded, it is how one smokes -- the frequency and inhalation patterns -- rather than what tobacco product is smoked that determines the risk of serious illness.

"To those individuals who may be thinking about smoking cigars, our advice is -- don't. Cigars are not safe alternatives to cigarettes and may be addictive," states the 232-page report, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun yesterday. "To those cigarette smokers who are thinking of switching to cigars, don't be misled. To those currently smoking cigars, quitting is the only way to eliminate the documented harm that can result from cigar smoking."

The report, a yearlong product of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the work of more than 50 leading scientists, was scheduled to be released by the government next week, but could be made public as early as today.

Donald R. Shopland, coordinator of the cancer institute's smoking and tobacco control program and the person who conceived and oversaw the report, declined to discuss specific findings.

"This is the most comprehensive assessment of what we know about the health risks and trends of cigar smoking in this country," he said. "I think this is similar in importance to the original report of the surgeon general in 1964 on cigarettes."

That landmark report, with which Shopland also was involved, established the link between cigarettes and their hazards, ultimately leading to a series of laws and regulations on cigarettes.

Armed with a massive health study, the government could impose advertising restrictions and warning labels on cigars, Shopland said, and it could place cigars under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The cigar industry yesterday continued to defend its product and the rights of its consumers. "Cigar smokers are mature, well-informed individuals who freely choose to enjoy a product that has brought pleasure to millions of people over the past 500 years, and to the extent that this report adds to their knowledge, we welcome it," said Norman F. Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America.

The report, however, took the industry to task: "Some in the cigar trade have made the claim that cigar smokers experience little or no increased disease risk. This claim is not supported by the available scientific evidence and misleads cigar smokers to believe that cigar smoke is less harmful than cigarette smoke."

The report also found that the difference between cigarette and cigar smokers is not whether one gets cancer more frequently than the other, but where the malignancy occurs.

"Regular cigar smokers have risks of oral and esophageal cancers similar to those of cigarette smokers, but they have lower risks of lung and laryngeal cancer, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," the report states. The NCI study also found that cigar smokers readily ingest nicotine without inhaling. Judy Sopenski, executive director of Stop Teenage Addiction to Tobacco, welcomed the new assessment.

"This report gives us some tools to fight back," Sopenski said. "It will give us the tool to say that cigars are not a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes or using chew."

Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are required to have strict federal warning labels on their packaging. Most cigar makers have voluntarily adopted a weak California warning label, but the industry is not required to carry a Surgeon General warning -- the federal government's declaration that smoking causes cancer.

Cigar makers are not required to disclose product ingredients to health authorities. Nor are they forbidden from advertising full-size cigars on television and radio, unlike cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

But pressure has been mounting from members of Congress, health groups and anti-tobacco activists to clamp down on cigars, given the product's national resurgence and its popularity among teen-agers.

In January, The Sun published a series of articles that documented how cigar makers planned the product's resurrection over nearly two decades, targeted women, the young and the wealthy, manipulated the media and used Hollywood to glamorize cigars.

With the government's report, the climate is changing.

"What it's going to mean is you're going to have the weight of the NIH [National Institutes of Health], the federal government, behind this when we want to talk about the hazards of cigar smoking," said Dr. Michael D. Maves, executive vice president of the American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. "People have had a Pollyannish vision that cigar smoking is safe. Clearly, that's not the case."

Pub Date: 4/10/98

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