MONDAY, Nov. 28, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The next time you walk by a group of teenagers surrounded by tobacco smoke, don't assume they're puffing away on Marlboros or Virginia Slims.
A new report finds that adolescents --including girls -- are turning to cigars in increasing numbers.
Why would any teen want to take that risk? Because fashions have changed, said Cristine Delnevo, an associate professor of public health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and co-author of a report in the December 2005 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Because of celebrity-backed advertisements, "the cigar industry (has) successfully marketed their products to adult women and adolescents of both sexes," she said. And there's another factor: a variety of new cigar flavors -- including grape, cinnamon and apple -- are making them even more appealing.
Even so, Delnevo contended, health officials haven't put the spotlight on kids and cigars: "This issue is under our radar."
Delnevo and colleagues examined recent statistics and found that overall cigar consumption in the United States has jumped by more than 28 percent between 2000 and 2004.
They also point to data from the 2004 New Jersey Youth Tobacco Survey, which found that cigarette use among teens had declined by almost 30 percent between 2001 and 2004, but high school boys are now more likely to smoke cigars than cigarettes.
About 17 percent of the New Jersey boys surveyed said they smoke cigars, compared to 16 percent who smoke cigarettes; 10 percent of high-school girls said they smoked cigars.
Last year, a survey of 4,409 Cleveland-area teens found that cigar use among teens (23 percent) outpaced cigarette use (16 percent).
"We may be deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are winning the war against smoking based solely on the figures relating to cigarette smokers, without focusing on the figures related to cigar smokers," said John Banzhaf III, executive director of the Action on Smoking and Health organization. Banzhaf, public interest law professor at George Washington University Law School, is familiar with the findings of the new report.
In addition to the influence of advertising and new flavors, Delnevo said price is playing a major role in boosting cigar use among teens. In some states, like New Jersey, differences in tobacco tax levels actually make it cheaper to smoke cigars than cigarettes, she said.
What to do? Delnevo said states need to do a better job of taxing cigars appropriately and regulating where they're sold, so it's harder for kids to get their hands on them.
Delnevo and Banzhaf are also not swayed by the suggestion that cigars are healthier than cigarettes because people might smoke fewer per day.
"It's hard to make a direct comparison because it depends on how often one smokes each product, the extent to which the cigar smoke is inhaled, and which cancers we focus on," Banzhaf said.
Even so, he added, "most experts would agree that cigar smoking is clearly not less dangerous than cigarette smoking."
There's also the risk that cigar smoking will create nicotine addiction, Delnevo said.
"Once that happens, does it matter which tobacco product youth are addicted to?" she said. "In this respect, the possibility exists that a youth could start smoking cigars, become addicted, and later use cigarettes. "
Learn more about the risks of cigar smoking from the American Cancer Society.