For the week of March 31, 1999  thru April 6, 1999  

Cigars: Are they worth it?

Smokers and health workers disagree

Express Staff Writer

Stephen Wagner savors his occasional cigar. (Express photo by Charmaine McCann)

"Now that’s a well-constructed ash," said Stephen Wagner of Ketchum, as he marveled his Cohiba cigar in Ketchum’s Roosevelt Tavern on a recent weekday night.

A few tables away, Darren Lewis of Boise clipped the tip of his Monte Cristo #2 cigar and prepared to light up.

Once reviled, lowered almost to pestilence status, cigars are smoking up the mainstream.

Despite a slight drop-off in popularity from when the cigar smoking fad was in full swing two years ago, the cigar business is still sturdy.

It is estimated that more than 10 million Americans smoke cigars regularly, an increase of about 2 million since 1993, according to the American Lung Association.

In the Wood River Valley, cigar retailers are not plentiful, but representatives from two Ketchum retailers report that sales of premium cigars have been rising steadily over the past five years.

Sun Valley Company, owner of the resort and ski area, does not allow cigar smoking in any of its dining establishments, but several local restaurants, like the Roosevelt Tavern and the Sawtooth Club, allow cigar smoking.


Across the nation, retailers boast annual sales increases of 50 percent or more for premium cigars for the last two years, according to Cigar Aficionado magazine.

That nationally distributed glossy magazine is also hot, reaching more than 500,000 readers. Even the likes of local residents and Hollywood stars Demi Moore and Arnold Schwarzenegger have stoked up stogies for its cover.

In general, these are cigar-friendly times, in part because of the glamour associated with the cigar, but also because of the commonly held belief that cigar smoking is safe.

Glamorous, maybe. But are they safe?

The Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t think so. The department recently recommended that cigars carry a cigarette-like Surgeon General’s warning.

"There is no safe form of tobacco," said Surgeon General David Satcher in a statement released on Feb. 26. "We should require the same sort of warning labels on cigars that we already require on packages of cigarettes and spit tobacco. The absence of such a warning on cigars could lead consumers to erroneously conclude that cigars do not carry health risks."

The health department cannot enact federal policy, but it can recommend policy to other government agencies. Only Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have the power to issue warning labels, which might be good news to cigar manufacturers and retailers.

But another national group, the American Lung Association, brings bad news to the cigar aficionados.

Cigars do carry serious health risks, according to the association. Its findings report:

  • Overall cancer death rates among men who smoke cigars are 34 percent higher than cancer death rates among non-smokers.

  • Even though cigar smokers do not generally inhale, when cigars are puffed the smoke is held in the mouth and upper airways, which raises the risk of dying from cancer of the larynx, mouth and esophagus by four to 10 times compared to non-smokers.

  • Cigars contain the highly addictive drug nicotine, a drug that speeds up the heart, narrows the blood vessels and reduces blood supply to the heart.

  • Cigars are also a major source of second-hand smoke. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the second-hand smoke from cigars is a more dangerous poison than second-hand smoke from cigarettes. Carbon monoxide emissions from cigars are 30 times as high as those for cigarettes.

Most cigar aficionados, however, are probably like Stephen Wagner. They are sensitive to the health concerns of non-smokers, such as their fellow patrons at the Roosevelt, and try not to pollute the air. They believe the pleasure they take in smoking a few cigars a week outweighs the health risks.

"I do have health concerns," Wagner said. "To consider that cigars are not unhealthy is stupid. But I don’t drink. I don’t take narcotics. So I figured I could have one vice. You just have to tailor it to your lifestyle."

Cigar smoking is a passion to Wagner. He looks over the collection of Cuban, Jamaican, and Dominican cigars stored in his cigar case as if they were works of art.

"Look at the nice shine on this one, the nice veins," Wagner said, pointing to a torpedo-shaped Padron cigar.

"Cigars are a ritual experience for me, not an addiction," he said. "If it’s not convenient, I don’t smoke them. Sometimes I’ll have one in a week, sometimes I’ll smoke three in a night."

Wagner said that stress, for him, is a much more formidable health enemy than cigar smoking.

"We lead such harried, stressful lives," he said. "The cigar calms me down. It relaxes me."


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