Next target in the war on tobacco: stogies

As more people light up, some US officials are saying cigars should abide by the same rules as cigarettes.

Over the past five years, the cigar industry has told the American public to light up a cigar to celebrate good times.

The media often picture athletes, celebrities, and politicians puffing away on giant stogies at parties or awards ceremonies. Cigar bars have cropped up around the country. Now, with sales booming, the cigar is under attack.

Federal and state officials are taking aim at the rolled-up tobacco leaves, which recent research has found may have an even greater health risk than cigarettes. Public-health groups are pointing to a sharp rise in teenage cigar smoking at the same time the industry has increased its advertising. And antitobacco congressmen have introduced legislation making cigars abide by the same labeling and advertising rules as cigarettes.

"There's no reason cigars should be treated any differently than cigarettes. They are a major health hazard," says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois and the sponsor of proposed cigar-regulating legislation.

Any new rules would come at a time when smoking cigars is on the rise. A recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study found that between 1996 and 1997, the number of cigar brands increased from 207 to 319. In the same time period, cigar sales jumped from $613 million to $876 million, representing the purchase of 4.4 billion cigars. Surveys have found that almost 11 percent of men and 2 percent of women smoke cigars.

Stogie mania

The cigar craze has been fueled in part by media glamorization. Last year, according to the American Lung Association, 38 percent of movies included a cigar scene. Actors who puff on the cigars include Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Denzel Washington, and Whoopi Goldberg.

The popular television show, "Chicago Hope," sometimes has a hospital administrator sharing cigars on the rooftop with the doctors. "A lot of this is product placement - companies paying for a spot," says Jose Kirchner at the American Lung Association in Sacramento, Calif.

But it's more than just product placement. Some of it is a cultural shift as Americans view cigars as an acceptable way to celebrate. Even sports heroes such as Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky have been featured in magazines celebrating with giant cigars.

And President Clinton, who is against smoking, is known for his cigar habit. "I've seen him chewing on a cigar, and he ought to be admonished as well," says Senator Durbin.

The official cigar backlash started last year after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a study on the health effects of smoking cigars. Some cigarette smokers have switched to cigars because they think they are safer. But the CDC found cigars can be just as harmful.

Then, last month the New England Journal of Medicine reported that cigar smokers are twice as likely as nonsmokers to get cancer of the mouth, throat, and lungs. Groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids got involved after a CDC survey found that 27 percent of teens between the ages of 14 and 19 had smoked a cigar in 1997.

Teen smoking concerns

That's not surprising, says Matt Myers of the campaign. For example, cigarillos are advertised in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated - a magazine with a high teen readership. "If you convince the 18- to 25-year-olds that cigar smoking is cool, the teens who want to look like that will follow suit," says Mr. Myers. "That's the reason to curtail this quickly."

Nancy Joyce, a smoking-prevention specialist at the St. Francis Medical Center in Pittsburgh, expects that teens from higher income families are trying cigars because they see their parents use them. "Teens need to be educated about cigars in health-education classes," she says.

Swisher, a cigar manufacturer located in Jacksonville, Fla., did not return repeated phone calls. Neither did Norm Sharp, the president of the Cigar Association of America, located in Washington.

With the health community starting to line up against cigars, last month the FTC recommended that Congress pass tobacco legislation requiring that cigars carry the same health warnings as cigarettes and chewing tobacco do. It also recommended Congress ban all electronic advertising, including radio ads.

"The dramatic increase in cigar use in America has occurred in tandem with the increase in promotional activities surrounding cigar smoking," wrote the FTC in its report.

Proposed bans

A week after the FTC report, Durbin introduced legislation that would ban the sale of cigars to minors, vending machine and mail-order sales, and electronic advertising. "The FTC has challenged us," he says.

At least one group, the American Council on Science and Health, is against the federal legislation. It argues the warning label will give cigar companies a legal defense. "We think the tobacco companies, to avoid litigation, should have to tell the truth about their product," says Jeff Stier, associate director of the group.

It's not clear where the cigar companies stand on federal legislation. They might want a relatively relaxed federal law to preempt states from acting. That's already starting to happen. California and Massachusetts have both enacted laws requiring warning labels on cigars.

Last week, several cigar manufacturers went to federal court to block the Massachusetts law, which was supposed to go into effect Aug. 2. Now, the state is expecting to go to trial this fall.

What has the cigar manufacturers upset is that the new Massachusetts law requires a conspicuous black-and-white health warning label on the top 25 percent of any package of cigars or in ads for them. The California warning label, by comparison, is almost inconspicuous.

The manufacturers claim the new Bay State rule would require them to put the warning on cigars sold outside the state, as well as magazine and Internet ads.

At Mr. Cigar, a New York store, the proprietor says such a label might have a chilling effect.

"It might cause people to reflect."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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