28 March 2018

Don't think that you're off the hook if you smoke cigars

A new study is sending an important message to people who might think one form of smoking is less dangerous than another.

South African Health Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, recently openly declared his hate for the tobacco industry and pledged stronger action against the industry that will also affect smokers.

Smokers who think cigars or pipes are somehow safer than cigarettes may want to think again, new research indicates.

Tobacco-linked cancer

The study tracked the health and habits of more than 357 000 Americans from 1985 to 2011.

It found that, compared to people who had never smoked, people who regularly smoked only cigarettes had double the risk of death during that time, from whatever the cause. And they had four times the odds of dying from a tobacco-linked cancer such as cancer of the lung, bladder, oesophagus, pancreas, larynx and mouth.

But people who claimed they smoked only cigars weren't off the hook.

Cigar smokers had a 20% higher chance of death from any cause, and a 61% higher risk of death from a tobacco-linked cancer, the researchers reported in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Rates for pipe smokers were similarly high: This group had a 58% higher risk of dying from a tobacco-linked cancer during the study period, compared to never-smokers.

"In 2015, an estimated 12.5 million people in the United States aged 12 years or older were current cigar smokers," noted the research team, which was led by Carol Christensen, of the US Food and Drug Administration's Center for Tobacco Products.

Increased risk of heart disease and stroke 

The study authors also noted that just under 1% of Americans said they have smoked some sort of tobacco pipe at least 50 times over their lifetime.

Tobacco can also be chewed or sniffed. A previous Health24 article cautions that "smokeless tobacco" is also harmful to health and, aside from the fact that it includes nicotine, is linked with a variety of cancers, such as in the mouth, oesophagus and pancreas. It is also associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. 

Two medical experts said the study sends an important message, especially to young people who might think one form of smoking is less dangerous than another.

"Combustible tobacco used in any form is a cancer risk, and pipe and cigar smokers cannot be given a pass," said Dr Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Patricia Folan directs the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York.

She noted that "a full-size cigar can contain chemicals to the equivalent of one pack of cigarettes, and individuals who switch from cigarettes to cigars frequently unintentionally inhale cigars the way they inhaled cigarettes – exposing them to large amounts of the hazardous substances in cigar smoke."

Some good news

There was some good news from the FDA study, however: The risk of death from any cause or tobacco-linked cancers fell once smokers quit.

So, Folan said, "I would not say that cigars are better than cigarettes – but quitting is." She urged smokers "to ask for help from your health care provider" on kicking the habit.

Image credit: iStock