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New Study Finds 17.4 Million U.S. Adults Smoke Cigars, Showing Need For FDA to Regulate All Cigars to Protect Public Health

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
July 31, 2014

WASHINGTON, DC – A new government study published today shows that 17.4 million Americans – 7.3 percent of U.S. adults – smoke cigars every day, some days or rarely. This study shows that cigar smoking is a serious public health problem that must be addressed through strategies such as Food and Drug Administration regulation of all cigars and taxation of cigar products at the same rate as cigarettes.

This study is the latest of several that have demonstrated how the popularity of cigars is undermining overall efforts to reduce smoking in the U.S.

A new CDC survey released in June (the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that while cigarette smoking continues to decline among high school students, cigar smoking rates have barely budged. As a result, high school boys now smoke cigars at the same rate as cigarettes (16.5 percent for cigars, 16.4 percent for cigarettes), and an alarming 23 percent of male high school seniors smoke cigars (compared to 19.6 percent who smoke cigarettes). Among all high school students, 12.6 percent were current (past-month) cigar smokers in 2013.

Sales data also show that overall consumption of cigars is rising. Cigar sales increased by 114 percent between 2000 and 2013 (from six billion to more than 13 billion cigars), while cigarette sales fell by 37 percent. (Data source: U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Tax Statistics)

These trends come as tobacco companies have exploited regulatory and tax loopholes to promote cigars, often in ways that appeal to kids. Unlike cigarettes, cigars are not currently regulated by the FDA. This has allowed cigars to escape important public health regulations that apply to cigarettes, such as a ban on candy and fruit flavors that attract kids.

In addition, a 2009 law that increased federal tobacco taxes taxed larger cigars at a lower rate than cigarettes and small cigars. Some manufacturers responded by increasing the weight of their products to qualify for the lower tax rate, with one company going so far as to add a clay material found in kitty litter to its cigars. These tax evasion schemes both encourage tobacco use by reducing prices and cost the government significant revenue. The Government Accountability Office reported earlier this week that such efforts (including both increasing the weight of small cigars and relabeling higher-taxed roll-your-own tobacco as lower-taxed pipe tobacco) have cost the federal government at least $2.6 billion in revenue.

The FDA and Congress must protect public health by closing these loopholes. The FDA must quickly finalize its proposed rule to regulate all tobacco products, including all cigars, and reject proposals to exempt some “premium cigars” from regulation. Today’s study shows that approximately 3.6 million adult cigar smokers (19.9 percent of all cigar smokers) usually smoke premium cigars, so any exemption would create a huge loophole and put the health of millions of Americans at risk. All cigar smokers should have the benefit of basic, common-sense regulations, such as disclosure of ingredients and appropriate warning labels about health risks. Any exemption would also invite tobacco companies to manipulate their products to qualify for the exemption and escape regulation, as they have done in the past.

In addition, Congress should equalize taxes on all tobacco products at the same rate as cigarettes to eliminate incentives for tax evasion. States with tobacco tax disparities should do the same.

In another troubling finding, today’s study finds that, regardless of the type of cigar they smoke, nearly 60 percent or more of cigar smokers are either current or former cigarette smokers. Reiterating previous findings from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the study states, “Cigar smokers that are current or former smokers are more likely to report inhaling cigar smoke, putting them at particularly high risk for tobacco-related diseases.”

According to NCI, cigar smoking causes cancer of the oral cavity, larynx, esophagus and lung, and cigar smokers are at increased risk for an aortic aneurysm. Daily cigar smokers, particularly those who inhale, have an increased risk of heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

It is imperative that the FDA and Congress take action to address the health risks posed by cigar smoking and prevent the growth in cigar smoking from undermining overall efforts to reduce tobacco use, the nation’s number one cause of preventable death.

The new study was conducted by researchers at the CDC, FDA and Rutgers School of Public Health. It was published in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.