Cigars as Deadly as Cigarettes?

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Whether it’s the iconic image of Al Pacino lighting up as Scarface, or a shot of rapper/producer/Cohiba Comador founder Jay-Z “sipping” on one of his company’s products, pop culture seems to consistently celebrate the cigar.

But while Hollywood’s version of cigar smoking is often meant to signal sophistication and opulence, the reality is anything but glamorous: A new review indicates that cigars carry the same risk of death as cigarettes, even if the smoke is puffed and not actively inhaled.

What did the latest research find?

  • The review, published in BMC Public Health, included 22 North American and European studies and found that despite misconceptions around cigar safety, the products can be just as hazardous as cigarettes. Among the findings:
  • Cigar smoking is linked to fatal oral, esophageal, pancreatic, laryngeal, and lung cancers, as well as heart disease and aortic aneurysm.
  • Cigars alone were enough to pose a serious risk: People who smoked only cigars and didn’t use other tobacco products had an increased risk of death from all causes.
  • The cancer risk was elevated in cigar smokers, regardless of whether they inhaled the smoke.
  • Smoking cigarettes compounded the risks. Cigar smokers who previously smoked cigarettes had a much higher risk of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than those who hadn’t previously smoked cigarettes.

Who is at risk?

Despite the well-documented risks associated with tobacco, cigars are more pervasive than ever before, even as cigarette use has declined.  Cigar consumption more than doubled from 2000 to 2011, ballooning from 6.2 billion to 13.7 billion, while cigarette consumption actually decreased by 33 percent.

“All tobacco products are unsafe, including cigarettes, cigars, and the newer ‘trendier’ products that include e-cigarettes and hookah,” says Taline Khroyan, PhD, program director for the Center for Health Sciences at SRI International. “Cigar smoke has higher levels of nitrosamines, tar, and toxins compared to cigarettes, and is more harmful to both the smoker and the exposed nonsmoker.”

Although cigars were once associated with a more mature population, an increasing number of young people have taken them up. Between 2009 and 2010, about 16 percent of Americans between 18 and 24 said they had smoked cigars at least one day in the past month. And in 2012, 13 percent of US high school students had smoked cigars or cigarillos (a smaller, narrow version) at least one day in the past month.

What should I do if I smoke?

“The most important thing you can do for your health is to quit as soon as possible,” says One Medical Group’s Malcolm Thaler, MD. “Whether you indulge in occasional cigars or are a pack-a-day cigarette smoker, you’ll reap the benefits of improved energy levels, less frequent colds and flus, and a significant drop in your risk for serious illnesses by quitting.” If you’re not sure how to call it quits, talk with your provider, and be sure to check out these 10 tips to quit smoking for good.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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