Are Cigars Safer Than Cigarettes?

There is a real but subtle difference between cigars and cigarettes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that this difference lies in the packaging of the tobacco — specifically, in cigars, the tobacco is wrapped in a tobacco-based product, such as a tobacco leaf, while the tobacco in cigarettes is surrounded in simple paper. While you may also picture cigars as much larger than cigarettes, this doesn't have to be the case. In fact, little cigars are about the same size and shape as cigarettes. That being said, cigars come in various sizes, while cigarettes are pretty standardly sized.

The CDC points out that in the United States alone, around 12.5% of adults smoke cigarettes, while a smaller percentage (3.5%) choose cigars as their preferred tobacco-based product. Whether you smoke cigars or cigarettes, the American Cancer Society states that both contain the addictive substance, nicotine, which leads to physical and psychological dependence. Cigars tend to contain higher concentrations of this substance when compared to cigarettes.

In addition to nicotine, both cigars and cigarettes contain toxic properties that classify them as carcinogens (via the CDC). But do cigars expose you to the same levels of toxins as cigarettes, making them a safer alternative? Here's what we know.

Cigars are not safer than cigarettes

Unfortunately, choosing cigars over cigarettes won't make you less susceptible to the harmful side effects of smoking, explains the Mayo Clinic. Part of this misconception comes from the tendency for cigar smokers to not fully inhale the smoke (via the National Cancer Institute); however, nicotine can still be absorbed into the body through the mouth. Additionally, smoking cigars without inhaling still creates smoke that ends up getting inhaled. This smoke contains toxins that lead to various health risks, including cancer, and lung and oral disease.

The National Cancer Institute even posits that cigar smoke is more damaging than cigarette smoke due to the processing and fermentation methods used. Nitrosamines, a substance found to cause cancer, are more highly concentrated in cigars than in cigarettes, for example, due to the fermentation process involved. If you opt for a large-sized cigar, you are also exposing yourself to a prolonged period of smoke, either directly or indirectly inhaling toxic chemicals, including hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.

Ultimately, you won't reduce your risk of developing cancer from smoking cigars over cigarettes, as per a 2015 systematic review carried out by BMC Public Health. Although the risk depends on various factors, including smoking frequency and inhalation level, researchers concluded that the mortality risk of smoking cigars was just as high (and sometimes higher) as for cigarettes.