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Report Cites News Media Role in Popularizing Cigars

Study: UC San Francisco analysis says the portrayal of such smokers has grown more positive each year.


SAN FRANCISCO — At first, the smoky sightings in "Independence Day" and appearances on "Seinfeld" and "Friends" had anti-tobacco activists and public health officials worried about a new, improved image for cigars.

Now, researchers at UC San Francisco have turned their attention to the news media's treatment of cigar smoking. And those experts at the medical school don't like what they are seeing.

According to their analysis of 391 newspaper articles about cigars printed between 1987 and 1997, journalists have been depicting cigar-smoking more positively as each year passes. Fading fast is the stereotype of a grumpy old man chomping on a smelly stogie.

"Now the image is of a high-ranked professional," said Lisa Bero, principal investigator of the San Francisco study. "It's sleek. It's success and power." And increasingly, celebrities and women are highlighted as cigar fans.

Even though cigar smoke is not generally inhaled, cigars have been linked to cancer of the lip, tongue, esophagus, larynx and lung. Compared with cigarettes, cigars produce more secondhand smoke and contain higher concentrations of carcinogens. Few of these points were made in the articles, according to the study, which was presented last week at the annual American Public Health Assn. meeting in Washington, D.C.

The study revealed that 63% of the news articles conveyed a positive image of cigars, 13% portrayed a negative image and 24% were neutral. Articles were gathered from two major databases and were limited to the top five circulation newspapers in the country and the top 10 circulation newspapers in California. Articles ranged from features on cigar bars to business stories on the growth of the cigar industry.

Jason Pitkin, spokesman for the California Cigar Assn., said newspapers are merely mirroring society. "I think that the media is beginning to reflect the broad diversity of cigar smokers," he said.

Bero, an associate professor of clinical pharmacy and health policy, said the surveyed articles that included information about health effects were written only after health organizations released major reports on the topic.

Cigar smoking nationwide has increased nearly 50% since 1993, and sales of premium cigars have grown 250%, according to a National Cancer Institute report released this year.

In California, the report noted, the percentage of men who smoke cigars nearly doubled to 8.8% between 1990 and 1996. The greatest rate of increase was among men ages 18 to 24, with a rise in consumption from 4.2% to 12.4%. For California women, the figure rose from 0.2% to 1.1%.

For Karen Gerlach, a co-author of that National Cancer Institute report, the university's findings illustrate the successful advertising efforts of the cigar industry.

"Before, people would see only old men--and very few old men--smoking cigars," said Gerlach, now a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in New Jersey. "But when they start seeing beautiful magazines with gorgeous Hollywood people, they think, 'Oh, I'm going to do it too.' "

UC San Francisco researchers expect to expand the analysis to 500 newspaper and 300 magazine articles by January. The effects of specialty magazines such as Cigar Aficionado and Smoke will be analyzed separately, Bero said.

Cigar Aficionado, which was founded in 1992 and now claims 379,000 subscribers, has helped to create a new image for cigars, said managing editor Gordon Mott. "But our purpose was to show it as a lifestyle choice with an element of connoisseurship, not unlike wine. We believed at the beginning and I continue to believe today that when cigars are enjoyed in moderation, that risks are limited."

The National Cancer Institute estimates that three out of four cigar smokers light up only occasionally, or less than once a day, and that health risks for such light smokers are still unknown.

However, experts stress that smoking one or two cigars per day doubles the risk for oral cancers and esophageal cancer, and raises the risk of cancer of the larynx sixfold compared with someone who has never smoked.

"Our recommendation from all this is that the public health community needs to react," Bero said. "One way to react is to get celebrities to not offer free advertising."

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