SUNDAY, Feb. 25, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Slowly but surely, American kids have gotten the message that cigarette smoking is stinky, smelly and a hazard to your health.
Now, if only they would believe the same about cigars.
While cigarette consumption declined in the United States by 10 percent from 2000 to 2004, cigar consumption jumped 28 percent, according to a recent report published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Other studies have found that teens who smoke cigars are definitely behind some of that increase. For instance, a 2004 survey conducted in Cleveland found that 23 percent of the 4,409 teens polled preferred cigars, compared to 16 percent choosing cigarettes.
And the increase may not yet have peaked, said John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, a national legal action anti-smoking organization based in Washington, D.C.
"Many of the factors that began leading to the [cigar] increase are still present," Banzhaf said. They include the perception that cigars look fashionable and the fact that high-profile politicians and others are seen smoking them regularly, he said.
"We have Arnold (Schwarzenegger, California's governor), smoking cigars and occasionally, Bill Clinton," he said. "More and more women are smoking cigars."
But it's not just politicians and women who are fueling the image that cigars are hip, said Scott Goold, director of Tobacco Freedom, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based group. "Our popular culture is filled with images of cigars," he said.
Your neighbor passes them out, for instance, when the family has a new baby. And businessmen smoke them when they cinch a business deal, he noted.
For cash-strapped teens, finances may play a role in their tobacco of choice, Banzhaf said. "Many states raise cigarette taxes but not cigar [taxes]," he said.
There's also the perception that cigars are just not as dangerous as cigarettes in terms of cancer risk, a perception Banzhaf and other experts said is incorrect.
While it's difficult to compare cigarettes and cigars head-to-head in terms of health risk, Banzhaf said, it's clear both are risky. Cigar smoking is strongly linked to a host of deadly cancers of the lip, tongue, mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx and lung. According to data from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, smoking just one or two cigars a day doubles the risk for oral and esophageal cancer and increases larynx cancer risk six-fold.
Risks rise even higher once users decide to inhale cigar smoke. Compared to nonsmokers, cigar smokers who inhale deeply face 27 times the risk of oral cancer and 53 times the risk of cancer of the larynx, according to the NIH report.
So, what works and what doesn't if you're a parent trying to convince your teen to avoid cigars and other tobacco?
Dwelling on the long-term risk of cancer -- that they may come down with lung cancer at 40 -- is not usually effective, Banzhaf said, because the typical teen thinks of the 40th birthday as an eternity away.
Teens also have a hard time personalizing risk. They tend to think they are immune to life's dangers -- that something bad could happen to the next person, but not them.
Parents should instead focus on the reasons kids light up to begin with. "Kids like to start smoking not so much for the taste but because it is a sign of growing up," Banzhaf said. Peer pressure plays a role, too.
"If parents can start to convince kids that smoking makes you stinky and smelly, not sexy and sophisticated, that can have a great impact," he said.
Goold tells parents to maintain an ongoing dialogue with their children, the same as they would when talking about not taking drugs. Spending time together as a family, such as eating dinner together, can help make that conversation flow more naturally, he said.
To learn more about tobacco-free environments, visit Action on Smoking and Health.