Cigar Smoking

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How are cigars different from cigarettes?

A cigar is defined, for tax purposes, as “any roll of tobacco wrapped in leaf tobacco or in any substance containing tobacco,” while a cigarette is “any roll of tobacco wrapped in paper or any substance not containing tobacco.” Traditional cigars don’t usually have filters, although many of the smaller, more cigarette-like cigars do.

Most cigars are made of a single type of air-cured or dried tobacco. Cigar tobacco leaves are first aged for about a year and then fermented in a multi-step process that can take from 3 to 5 months. Fermentation causes chemical and bacterial reactions that change the tobacco. This is what gives cigars a different taste and smell from cigarettes.

Cigars come in many sizes:

  • The smallest, known as little cigars or small cigars, are about the size of cigarettes. Other than the fact that they are brown and maybe a little longer, they look like cigarettes. They come in flavors like mint, chocolate, or fruit, and many have filters. They are often sold in packs of 20. Most people smoke these small cigars exactly the same as cigarettes.
  • Slightly larger cigars are called cigarillos, blunts, or cheroots. They contain more tobacco than little cigars, and are also often flavored. Studies suggest that some people smoke them more like cigarettes than cigars, inhaling and smoking every day. They look like small versions of traditional tapered cigars, but they can be bought in small packs.
  • True large cigars may contain more than half an ounce of tobacco – as much as a whole pack of cigarettes. It can take from 1 to 2 hours to smoke a traditional large cigar. Many what are now called “large cigars” are carefully made to meet the legal definition of a large cigar (which is based on weight, not size), even though they’re actually quite small. This means they can be called large cigars or in some states, “other tobacco products,” which is good for the tobacco companies (see the next section).

When looking at size and weight of small cigars and large cigars compared to cigarettes, legal definitions get very confusing. Since 2009, small cigars have been defined as those that weigh 3 pounds or less per 1,000 cigars. Some of the larger cigarettes can weigh more than 3 pounds per 1,000. Still, any cigar weighing more than 3 pounds per 1,000 is taxed as a “large” cigar, despite being smaller than some cigarettes.

Why so many options?

Cigars that are sold like cigarettes and smoked like cigarettes are another way the tobacco industry has managed to get around federal laws and taxes. For example, cigars that are small in size but meet the legal definition of large cigars (based on weight) are taxed at lower rates than cigarettes and small cigars by state and federal governments. The tobacco industry uses this to their advantage.

Certain combustible tobacco products (those that are burned and smoked) can be sold in packs like cigarettes and be used like cigarettes, but not legally be considered cigarettes. This means they’re not subject to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations related to manufacturing, flavoring, labeling, and marketing. For instance, these products can be flavored, and can be labeled with misleading descriptors like “light” or “low tar.” They can be marketed and sold with fewer restrictions and much lower taxes than cigarettes. And the candy flavors and low price makes them more appealing and accessible to young smokers.

While overall data shows that cigarette use has decreased, the use of other combustible tobacco products has increased. So, these low-priced and less-regulated products seem to have led some cigarette smokers to switch to other combustible tobacco products, and cigarette-like cigars are especially popular.

In fact, since the federal tobacco excise tax was increased in 2009, statistics show that large cigar and pipe tobacco use has increased, while cigarette and “little cigar” smoking has decreased. This is the result of a new legal definition of “large cigar” and offering cigarette smokers and curious kids a lower-priced, less regulated tobacco option − cigars.

Are cigars as addictive as cigarettes?

Cigars contain nicotine, the substance in tobacco that addicts people. Cigar smokers who inhale absorb nicotine through their lungs as quickly as cigarette smokers. For those who don’t inhale, the nicotine absorbs more slowly through the lining of the mouth. Cigar smoke dissolves more easily in saliva than cigarette smoke. This means cigar smokers can get the desired dose of nicotine without inhaling the smoke directly into their lungs. People who use oral or spit tobacco products absorb nicotine the same way. Nicotine in any form is highly addictive.

Even though people may smoke cigars for different reasons, the fact is, like cigarettes, cigars deliver nicotine. Most full size cigars have as much nicotine as several cigarettes. Cigarettes contain an average of about 8 milligrams (mg) of nicotine, but only deliver about 1 to 2 mg of nicotine to the smoker. Many popular brands of larger cigars contain between 100 and 200 mg, or even as many as 444 mg of nicotine. The amount of nicotine a cigar delivers to a smoker can vary a great deal, even among people smoking the same type of cigar. How much nicotine is taken in depends on things like:

  • How long the person smokes the cigar
  • How many puffs are taken
  • Whether the smoker inhales

Given these factors and the large range of cigar sizes, it’s almost impossible to make good estimates of the amounts of nicotine larger cigars deliver.

For small cigars, Health Canada estimates that filtered little cigars that are the size and shape of cigarettes contain about the same amount of nicotine as a cigarette. If these are smoked like cigarettes (inhaled), they would be expected to deliver a similar amount of nicotine, but this has not been fully tested.


Last Medical Review: 02/19/2014
Last Revised: 02/19/2014