Harvard Health Letter

In Brief: Cigar smoke-filled rooms

In Brief

Cigar smoke–filled rooms

A reader wrote us asking for information about secondhand cigar smoke. Her husband has pooh-poohed her concerns that his cigar habit might be bad for her. She wanted to bolster her objections with some facts, so here goes:

Cigar smoke does differ from cigarette smoke. The tobacco used to make cigars is cured differently (air-cured versus air- and heat-cured) and fermented. Cigar tobacco contains more nitrate than cigarette tobacco, so the smoke it produces contains more nitrogen oxide, ammonia, and tobacco-specific nitrosamines, which are especially carcinogenic. Cigar smoke is more alkaline, so the nicotine it contains is absorbed more readily than cigarette smoke. And according to some research, cigar tobacco generates more carbon monoxide, gram for gram, than cigarette tobacco. Researchers have tested the carbon monoxide levels in the homes of cigar smokers and found some in which the concentrations are close to those near the most crowded California highway. Talk about indoor air pollution.

So far, so good for the spouse of the cigar smoker. But it's not quite so simple. We have plenty of data about secondhand cigarette smoke, but there has been little research into the health consequences of secondhand cigar smoke. Some studies show that cigar smoke contains fewer particles and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons than cigarette smoke — but others say that isn't so. Total exposure is hard to determine because cigar smoking habits vary so much. Cigarettes are a daily addiction for most users, but many cigar smokers light up only occasionally.

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