The Unhealthy Cigar’s Glamorous Image Is a Lot of Hot Air
Demi Moore wants to light up your life. “There’s something about smoking a cigar that feels like a celebration,” says the star, a Cigar Aficionado cover celebrity. “It’s like a fine wine. There’s a quality, a workmanship, a passion that goes into the making of a fine cigar.”
That equation-fine cigar equals fine wine-has firmly taken hold among the pretenscienti, neo-yuppies who love the “naughty,” politically incorrect frisson that comes with every public puff. No longer is the cigar smoker stereotyped as the heartless capitalist depicted in a Working Assets ad; now he-and increasingly, she-is cool, a rebel with a rich inner life. It’s the tattoo and the belly-button ring of the late 90s, and its indulgence is catered to by upscale cigar bars with walk-in humidors. Americans smoked an incredible 4.5 billion cigars in 1996, a 44.5 percent rise from 1993.
Stogie smokers have their own version of Playboy. Portly publisher Marvin Shanken, who first went after “connoisseurs” with the magazine Wine Spectator, launched Cigar Aficionado in 1992 as the quarterly everyone thought would crash and die after the first issue. Instead, it became a rare publishing success story, growing hugely to its current status as a bimonthly with 400,000 subscribers and page after page of high-end advertising. “It’s really a lifestyle magazine for men, most of whom are quite affluent,” says Niki Singer, a senior vice president. “The country was ready for it. Our readers have been told to moderate their drinking, to abstain from eating red meat-they’re tired of being dictated to. They’re adults, and smoking cigars is their choice.”
If letters to the editor are any clue, Cigar Aficionado’s readers are guided largely by seething resentment to assaults on their white male privilege. “On one side is individual freedom and pleasure,” writes Michael Washington through teeth clenched around a Romeo y Julieta. “On the other side is everybody who seems to know what’s best for me.”
Like any collector hobby, cigar “nonconformists” have their holy grail-in this case, it’s the forbidden fruit of banned Cohibas and Hoyo Epicures from Cuba. The U.S. Customs Service seized 96,216 Cuban cigars in 1,400 incidents during 1996.Though they display no evident affection for Fidel Castro, cigar fanatics seem to have no qualms about bolstering his regime by dealing in smuggled goods or making special appearances. Ardent anti-communist Arnold Schwarzenegger was reportedly on hand at the 30th anniversary of the Cohiba in Havana last February, defying the travel ban to Cuba along with fellow stars Danny DeVito and Jack Nicholson.
A Costly Indulgence
All this would be merely amusing if cigars weren’t a serious health threat. But despite the fact that many cigar smokers don’t inhale and indulge their passion only occasionally, there’s clear and mounting evidence that -even without a printed warning on the package-cigars are hazardous to your health (and to the health of people forced to breathe in your secondary smoke).
According to the American Lung Association (ALA), health studies show that men who smoke five or more cigars per day are two to three times more likely to die of lung cancer than are nonsmokers. Cigar smokers also face higher death rates from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and are particularly at risk from laryngeal, oral and esophagal cancers (death rates equal those of cigarette smokers, according to the American Cancer Society). The American Journal of Public Health adds that cigar smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to suffer from persistent coughs and phlegm buildups, and have a greater likelihood of contracting peptic ulcers. A study of 25,000 Swedish men found that cigar smokers were five times more likely to die from an aortic aneurysm (the result of a weakened blood vessel) than nonsmokers.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that an autopsy study of lungs from 1,443 men found that 53.5 percent of the cigar smokers were in some stage of emphysema. A single large cigar can contain as much tobacco as a whole pack of cigarettes, and smoking just two or three a day results in that level of exposure to nicotine (which, along with tar, is heavily concentrated in cigars). Even holding an unlit cigar in your mouth is dangerous, as it may enable nicotine absorption. Secondary smoke is also an issue. “Because cigar smokers do not fully inhale a majority of the smoke when they light up,” says Thomas Gibson, ALA president, “they deposit more secondhand smoke in the air around them.” This secondhand smoke contains some 4,000 chemicals, 23 of which are poisonous and 43 of which are carcinogenic.
“When you see glamorous individuals like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Clinton smoking cigars, what you’re not seeing is the health effects,” says Ann Malarcher, an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. “It’s almost like it’s considered a safe habit, and really for many of the oral cancers, it’s just as deadly as cigarette smoking.” In a recent issue, Barron’s magazine warned investors that the cigar fad was about to burst-largely because of forthcoming health studies.
Starting ‘Em Young-and Female
Though cigars are, like cigarettes, an “adults-only” product whose sale to minors under 18 is prohibited, the law hasn’t had much practical effect. Illegal sales of cigars to young people reportedly exceed cigarette sales. The CDC, working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, released a study last May revealing that some 27 percent of high school students admit to having smoked a cigar in the previous year. In two New York counties, 13 percent of ninth-grade students said they had smoked a cigar in the last 30 days. “We’re shocked by the magnitude of cigar smoking among high school students,” says Michael Erisken, director of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health. “It’s clearly an outgrowth of the glamorization of cigar smoking among adults.”
The Washington-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) recently filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking that it assert regulatory authority over cigars. “Their argument has been that they don’t regulate cigars because they’re not as attractive to kids,” says ASH Executive Director John Banzhaf. “But the CDC study shows an absolutely alarming rise in teenage cigar smoking. Our feeling is that every regulation that applies to cigarettes, including restrictions on promotion and advertising, should also apply to cigars.” Dr. Anne Davis, a pulmonary physician in New York and a past president of the American Lung Association, agrees with Banzhaf. “Cigars certainly should be regulated,” she says. “I would tell any teenager thinking of taking up the habit that cigars can be as addicting as cigarettes, and that while you may not feel the effects now, you could down the line.”
Thanks to “glamorous” smokers like Demi Moore and Madonna, cigar smoking has also caught on among women. Although the industry trade association estimates that only four percent of cigar smokers are women, gender health statistics are already being affected. Dr. Nieca Goldberg, the head of cardia
c rehabilitation at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, points out that “the leading cancer in women is not breast cancer anymore-it’s lung cancer, because of the increase in smoking among women.”
Norman Sharp, president of the Washington-based Cigar Association of America, after first proclaiming that his organization “doesn’t get into” health matters, downplayed the CDC data by pointing out that it found only 2.6 percent of teenagers smoking 50 or more cigars a year. “To be a teen is to experiment,” he says. “Our industry’s experience is that kids don’t smoke cigars.” Really? A letter in the winter 1996 issue of Cigar Aficionado: “I began smoking cigars in high school and have grown to become a true aficionado.” A second letter, same magazine: “I admit my first indulgence was before the proper age of 18 years, feeding my rebellious attitude.”
“I’m not rich,” says aquarium cleaner and cigar smoker Bryan Gallagher of Huntington, Long Island, puffing away at a recent restaurant cigar night. “But smoking a cigar makes you feel like you’re in the upper echelon,” hobnobbing with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Demi Moore and Danny DeVito.
TRACEY C. REMBERT is Managing Editor of E.