Many people view cigar smoking as more sophisticated and less dangerous than cigarette smoking. Yet one large cigar can contain as much tobacco as an entire pack of cigarettes. And the secondhand smoke it gives off, which others breathe in, can fill a room for hours. Cigars are tobacco, and they are dangerous to your health.
Tobacco use is responsible for nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the United States. Tobacco use is an acquired behavior — it’s something that people choose to do. This makes smoking the most preventable cause of death in our society.
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.” Unlike most cigarettes, traditional cigars do not usually have filters.
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 even look like cigarettes. They come in all sorts of flavors, and many have filters. They are often sold in packs of 20. Most people smoke 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 smaller packs.
Large cigars may contain more than a half an ounce of tobacco. This is as much tobacco as a whole pack of cigarettes. It can take from 1 to 2 hours to smoke a large cigar. But many so-called “large cigars” are carefully made to meet the legal definition of a large cigar, 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).
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, large cigars and loose tobacco 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.
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, large cigar and pipe tobacco use has increased, while cigarette and “little cigar” smoking has decreased. This is the result of offering cigarette smokers 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 the 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 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 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 a number of 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.
With respect to small cigars, Health Canada estimates that the 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: 11/08/2012
Last Revised: 01/17/2013