Alarmed by a dramatic increase in cigar consumption, particularly among adolescents, the Federal Trade Commission yesterday proposed placing the same advertising and labeling restrictions on cigars that are now on cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
Citing new medical evidence of the health risks of cigar smoking, the FTC called for specific, rotating warning labels on all cigar packaging and advertisements. The agency also called for a ban on all cigar ads on television and radio.
As a matter of tradition, the FTC first asked Congress to enact legislation requiring the labels. But FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said the agency will consider imposing the warnings on its own if Congress fails to act, "because I do think a warning is the right thing."
Cigar sales have jumped sharply in recent years, roughly tracking the boom in the stock market and the prosperous economy. Cigars, in the words of one industry official, became "an affordable little luxury, like microbrew beers and single-malt scotches." With fancy cigar dinners at expensive restaurants, tony magazines devoted solely to cigar smoking and even bars dedicated to the pastime, the stogie has become synonymous with the good life.
The FTC report said consumers are generally aware that cigar smoking poses a health risk. It added, however, that "the current absence of clear and conspicuous federal health warnings for cigars may send a misleading signal that cigars are not harmful to one's health, or that cigars are a safe alternative to cigarettes."
Pitofsky said the FTC began considering warning labels after the National Cancer Institute issued a report last year about the health risks of cigar smoking. The report found that regular cigar smoking, like the use of other tobacco products, can cause several forms of cancer. Although the risks depend on how many cigars a person smokes, cigar smoking can cause cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx and lungs, the report said.
The FTC recommendations come just five months after the Department of Health and Human Services called for government warnings on cigars. Yesterday, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said he is "very pleased" to see the FTC recommending warning labels, which he called a "critical" part of promoting public health.
The FTC suggested three different warnings be attached to cigar packaging and ads:
"Cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes."
"Regular cigar smoking can cause cancers of the mouth and throat, even if you do not inhale."
"Inhaling cigar smoke can cause lung cancer. The more deeply you inhale, the greater your risk."
The cigar industry immediately criticized the FTC report. Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, said it doesn't accurately portray the industry or cigar smokers. "Cigar smokers are mature, well-informed adults who smoke on an occasional basis," Sharp said. Nearly 90 percent of cigar smokers smoke fewer than one a day, according to a recent household survey cited in the FTC report.
But Sharp said the industry would prefer a single federal warning-label program over the different programs now being imposed or considered by several states.
The FTC report shows a sharp increase in cigar consumption since 1993, when 3.4 billion cigars were sold. In 1998, 5.35 billion cigars were sold, an increase of 57 percent in five years. But 1998 consumption was still less than half the 11.3 billion cigars sold in 1973, when consumption reached record levels.
But last year the increase in sales slowed to only 4 percent. With some highbrow cigar bars shutting down, Sharp predicted, growth will remain modest in years ahead. The greatest increase in cigar smoking has occurred among young adult men, with one study showing 12.5 percent of men 18 to 24 smoking cigars in 1996, up from 4 percent in 1990. Among women, another study showed cigar-smoking rates the highest among those 18 to 25. Until recently, the FTC said, surveys had showed the greatest concentration of cigar smokers to be older men.
The FTC attributed the sales increase to a sharp rise in promotional activities of cigar companies. Data collected from the nation's five largest cigar firms showed that total advertising and promotional expenses increased 32 percent between 1996 and 1997, from $30.9 million to $41 million.
Sharp said that increase may sound steep as a percentage, but "it's not so dramatic" if you look at the actual numbers -- especially compared with the cigarette industry, which spent $5 billion on advertising and promotion in 1997.
Cigarette ads are already banned on TV, and Sharp called the proposed TV ban on cigar commercials "a non-issue" because the amount of money is so small -- $325,000 spent for ads in all electronic media in 1996 and 1997. Sharp said he could not recall any cigar being promoted over national television for more than a decade.
Neither could Pitofsky, but he said a ban is needed to ward off any possibility of future cigar promotions on TV, which the report found "is the type of advertising most likely to be passively received by minors."
FTC officials said it's unclear whether its proposed ban on cigar advertising on all electronic media would apply to the Internet. "That's an open question," said one FTC staff member who declined to be named.
Key Republican lawmakers didn't immediately embrace the report, saying they needed to study it. While some Democrats doubted the Republican leadership would adopt the proposal, others said the FTC report may put pressure on Congress to address the issue.
CAPTION: A TASTE FOR CIGARS (This chart was not available)