Cigarette Smokers Switch to Cigars and Pipes to Save Money

As cigarette sales dropped in the U.S., consumption of cheaper cigars and pipe tobacco took off, canceling out some of overall decline in tobacco use

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Americans are consuming less tobacco overall, but public-health officials aren’t patting themselves on the back just yet. While cigarette consumption continues to decrease — dropping 33% from 2000 to 2011 — government data reveal a worrying new trend: a 123% increase in the consumption of other smokable tobacco products like cigars and pipes.

The findings are reported in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which tracks “combustible” tobacco consumption since 2000. The data suggest that while consumption is declining overall, some cigarette smokers are simply switching to cigars and other types of tobacco to get their nicotine fix, because these products aren’t taxed the same way as cigarettes and are therefore cheaper.

The largest increases in pipe-tobacco and cigar consumption occurred between 2008 and 2011, right at the time the federal tobacco tax was increased, in 2009, making pipe tobacco cheaper than regular roll-your-own loose tobacco and also making large cigars less taxed than small cigars and cigarettes. This led tobacco manufacturers to relabel roll-your-own tobacco as pipe tobacco to get around the tax, and to plump up the size of small cigars — which are essentially indistinguishable from cigarettes except for their brown color and varied flavors — to meet the requirements of the large-cigar classification. By avoiding the cigarette tax, the beefier small cigars can sell for as little as 7 cents per cigar, or $1.40 a pack. Compare that to the $4 or $5 it costs per cigarette pack in most states.

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In 2008-11, roll-your-own tobacco consumption fell 76%, while pipe-tobacco use rose 573%. Over the same time period, consumption of small cigars fell 86%, while large-cigar consumption spiked 126%.

That helps explain the slowdown in declines of overall tobacco use at the end of the decade: the CDC data show that despite a 2.6% decrease in cigarette use from 2010 to 2011, the total consumption of smokable tobacco dropped only 0.8%.

These little cigars may also be particularly appealing to teens, the authors of the report say, because they come in a variety of flavors, including vanilla and chocolate. Since cigars and pipe tobacco aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) like cigarettes are, they can not only be flavored, but manufacturers can also label them “light” or “low tar” and market them with fewer restrictions.

“The rise in cigar smoking, which other studies show is a growing problem among youth and young adults, is cause for alarm,” said Tim McAfee, director of CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, in an emailed statement.“The Surgeon General’s Report released this past March shows that getting young people to either quit smoking or never start smoking is the key to ending the tobacco epidemic, because 99% of all smokers start before they’re 26 years old.”

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The report notes also that:

Smoke from pipes and cigars contains the same toxic chemicals as cigarette smoke. The evidence that the increase in cigar and pipe tobacco use is the result of offering cigarette smokers a low-priced alternative product is a particular public health concern, because the morbidity and mortality effects of other forms of combustible tobacco are similar to those of cigarettes.

Given that raising taxes has been one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use, and especially to prevent youths from picking up the habit to begin with, the new report suggests that federal taxes should be applied equally to all tobacco products — and that the FDA should regulate them all as well — the authors say.

“The availability of low-priced and less regulated alternative products appears to have led certain cigarette smokers to switch to other combustible tobacco products,” they conclude. “This group also might include persons who otherwise might have quit smoking as a result of the 2009 federal tobacco excise tax increase and FDA cigarette regulations.”

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