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Cigars Get Health Warning Labels

WebMD Health News

June 26, 2000 (Washington, D.C.) -- Public health officials Monday lit a celebratory stogie -- figuratively, at least -- as the federal government said that health warning labels are on the way for nearly all of the nation's cigars. And for the first time with any tobacco product, the warnings will mention the hazards of secondhand smoke.

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, MD, and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Robert Pitofsky announced that the nation's seven leading cigar firms have agreed to rotate a series of five warnings with all their advertisements and on cigar packages. The firms manufacture 95% of the nation's cigars and are responsible for the majority of imported cigars.

Although California has required cigar warning labels since 1988, no national requirement has existed. By contrast, cigarettes have carried labels since the mid-1960s, and smokeless tobacco products have had them since the mid-1980s.

Richard Levinson, MD, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association, cheered the new warnings. But, he tells WebMD, "I'm a little puzzled as to why it took so long for cigars. The adverse health risks have been known for over 20 years."

Pitched as a stylish and luxurious activity, cigar smoking has created a booming industry over the last decade. The National Cancer Institute reported that more than 5 billion cigars were consumed in the U.S. in 1997, and cigar consumption has been on the rise since 1993.

But officials said Monday that the lack of warning labels may have sent a false message to smokers that cigars were safer than cigarettes. One of the new labels spells it out for the consumer, reading: "Cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes."

The black-and-white cigar warnings, somewhat larger than those on cigarette containers, also address -- for the first time on any tobacco product label -- the risks of secondhand smoke. According to the new label, "Tobacco smoke increases the risk of lung cancer and heart disease, even in nonsmokers."

"This should serve as a catalyst for a similar warning for cigarettes," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Myers' group applauded the labels, as did the American Lung Association.

Other upcoming labels mention that cigar smoking can cause mouth and throat cancer, even without inhalation, and that cigar smoking can cause lung cancer and heart disease. The warnings will appear within the next 180 days.

Satcher called the secondhand smoke warning a "significant advance," saying that cigarette and smokeless tobacco labels are outdated. He claimed that 60,000 people die each year of lung cancer or heart disease from being exposed to others' smoke, while 25,000-30,000 children develop asthma from secondhand smoke.

Levinson noted that individual cigars are not covered under the warning label agreement, which he said might decrease their deterrent effect. "Only labeling the cigar boxes may be less effective," he tells WebMD.

The cigar firms agreed to the labels after the FTC said that they were deceptively marketing the products by not disclosing their health risks.

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