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The Mythical Canadian Cigar Craze

“Cigars making a comeback ”
– Now (BC Lower Mainland), Jan 96

“Stinky stogie gains SEX appeal”
– The Ottawa Citizen, Jan 96

“ … cigar smoking, now making a comeback in Canada.”
– The Financial Post Magazine, Jan 94

“Rehabilitation of the stogie”
– The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon), Oct 96

“Two new clubs fire up cigar trend”
– The Ottawa Citizen, Mar 97

Media in the past few years have reported an increasing trend in cigar smoking in Canada. The press points to glossy cigar magazines, the opening of cigar bars, the endorsement of cigar smoking by celebrities, and anecdotal reports of increased cigar sales at speciality shops as evidence of a burgeoning business.

The image painted is one of youthful maturity, sophistication, power, and wealth. The marketing strategy is to convince the public that cigars no longer belong in a yellowed living room, smoked by an overweight uncle. They are now in the forefront of fashion, can be enjoyed by young and sexy men and women, and are an entree to power.

Cigar sales in Canada tell a different story: sales have been in a virtually continuous decline for over a decade with an upswing only in the past two years, contrary to the reported trend.

There is less current information about who smokes cigars. 1994 Health Canada data indicate that cigar smokers are still predominantly male, and concentrated between ages 25 & 44.


Cigar Sales in Canada, 1982-1995
Year Domestic Imported
(millions of pieces)
1982 381 17
1983 345 18
1984 312 23
1985 306 23
1986 283 19
1987 261 21
1988 239 20
1989 222 19
1990 190 6
1991 338 8
1992 157 6
1993 147 7
1994 145 8
1995 133 12
1996 133 29
1997 130 55

Cigar Sales Graph

Manufacturing an Epidemic

Media reports of the popularity of cigar smoking may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many people want to be part of the norm. Their perception of the norm influences behaviour. This is exactly as cigar manufacturers and advertisers intend.

Led by the cigar industry’s expensive, extensive and sexy promotional tactics, a time-tested marketing strategy is playing itself out: Tell people something is trendy, and it eventually will be.

This is already happening in the United States. Cigar Aficionado magazine was launched in 1992 with high-profile marketing, including sponsorship of cigar nights in glamourous locations. In 1994, U.S. cigar sales began to increase for the first time since the 1960s.

Recent cigar marketing is not unlike the marketing of cigarettes earlier this century. The manufacture of popularity followed the mass manufacture of cigarettes. Suffragettes were told to take up smoking in the name of emancipation. Cigarettes were marketed as an essential part of the war effort, symbolizing patriotism. The marketing targets became younger and broader until cigarettes could represent something meaningful to just about everyone. As a result, the epidemic of tobacco-caused diseases spread without discrimination.

In fact, the current wave of cigar marketing may give a parallel push to cigarette sales and marketing. It recalls the glamour once associated with cigarettes. The increased acceptance of cigar smoking in public assists those lobbying against smoking restrictions. And the highly visible smoking of cigars by celebrities undermines messages about the harmfulness of all tobacco products.

The outcry against cigar promotion has been muted at least in part because the high-priced contrived culture surrounding cigars is seen as directed at adults. But this is exactly how cigarette marketing began. As the tobacco industry knows, adolescents want nothing more than to be like adults. So “adult” behaviour is soon imitated by youth.

The recent increase in Canadian cigar sales is concentrated in the higher-end import sector. If it were only $50 Havana cigars that were available, we might be less worried. But, as described below, many cigars are affordable and accessible.

The marketing provides the enticements, and the availability of cheap cigars and cigar substitutes the means, for adolescents to become cigar users. If measures are not put in place to prevent it, we can expect increased sales in lower price categories and among youth in the near future.

Lolita Cigar Magazine Ad This “Lolita” picture entices readers to subscribe to Smoke magazine

Preventive Measures

The “cigar phenomenon” presents health interests with a responsibility to act. We have the tools to avert an epidemic. Ironically, the cigar industry provides some insights to solutions. Trade analysts attribute market size to the same factors which tobacco companies publicly deny have an impact on consumption: tax rates, health warnings, promotional restrictions, and restrictions on smoking.

These areas must be addressed in order to prevent an increase in cigar use. Almost all of the tools for reducing demand for cigars can be implemented under existing Ontario and federal legislation. Ontario’s Tobacco Control Act provides authority to better inform consumers of the health risks of cigar use on the package and at point-of-sale.

The recently-passed federal Tobacco Act also provides broad regulatory authority to address these and other issues, but current draft regulations under this law do not address cigars. The following remedies are suggested.

1. Improve health warnings on cigar packaging.

Package warnings have a tangible benefit: people underestimate the health risks of cigar use, and effective warnings have been shown to motivate quit attempts and reductions in consumption. Yet individually wrapped cigars are not required to carry a health warning. Cigars and cigar substitutes (little cigars and cigarillos, for example) in packages only carry weak warnings at the bottom of the package in camoflauged colours.

The federal government has missed two opportunities to improve cigar warnings: when cigarette warnings were improved in 1993, and when the current draft regulations under the Tobacco Act were released in spring 1997. The government should amend the proposed Tobacco Regulations to require warnings on cigar wrappings and packages to be as prominent as those on cigarette packages: larger, in black and white, and at the top of the package.

The Ontario government is also able to give consumers more information about tobacco products. Under the Tobacco Control Act, there is broad authority to require health and other information on tobacco product packaging, including cigars. Ontario can and should act, particularly in the absence of adequate federal warnings.

2. Reduce the affordability to kids of cigars and cigar substitutes.

“Century Sam” cigars are sold for 994 each at corner stores. Packs of Colts and Captain Black Sweets are available for under $4. Since affordability is a key factor determining consumption, this situation must be corrected.

Both the federal and Ontario governments have at least two options to accomplish this.

The federal Tobacco Act bans the sale of packages containing fewer than 20 cigarettes, making packages less affordable to youth. It also provides regulatory authority to set minimum pack sizes for other tobacco products. Yet the proposed regulations fail to do this. The federal government should use the Tobacco Act to set minimum package sizes for cigar products. Regardless of federal action, however, Ontario can and should set minimum package sizes for cigars as authorized under the Tobacco Control Act, as it already does for cigarettes.

Of course, affordability is a factor in consumption of all tobacco products. The tax decreases in 1994 resulted in the first per capita increase in consumption in 15 years. The increase was greatest among youth. Both the Ontario and federal governments should increase the tax rates on cigars and other tobacco products.

3. Enforce the Tobacco Act to remove self-service displays.

The federal Tobacco Act bans the self-service sale of all tobacco products. However, anecdotal reports indicate that self-service displays of both cigars and cigarettes remain. Proper enforcement must occur to ensure that these displays disappear.

4. Eliminate countertop displays.

The federal Tobacco Act does not ban countertop displays which are not self-service. This means that cigars remain in easy sight and reach. Many countertop displays can be easily accessed by adolescents. The Tobacco Act provides authority to eliminate countertop displays. The government should include this measure – for cigars and other tobacco products – in the proposed regulations.

5. Post health information at point of sale.

Cigars are often displayed in attractive kiosks or humidours that add to the media-contrived aura. Both Ontario and federal legislation provide the authority to require health information at point of sale. As mentioned above, people underestimate the health risks of cigars, perceiving them to be safer than cigarettes. Therefore governments should not miss the opportunity to inform consumers about the health consequences of cigar use, particularly given the chance to counter the alluring promotions often present at point of sale.

6. Eliminate descriptive package language.

One of the most common countertop cigar products is Captain Black “Sweets.” The use of a term associated with candy on a tobacco product sends misleading messages about the product and is clearly unacceptable. This and other misleading language can and should be eliminated by regulations under the Tobacco Act and/or the Tobacco Control Act, or under general provincial or federal consumer protection laws.

7. Advocate for health warnings on cigar promotions in foreign media distributed in Canada.

Publications such as Cigar Aficionado and Smoke are key promotional tools and are rife with celebrity endorsements. Unfortunately, this is outside Canada’s regulatory authority to solve. Because these publications are printed in the United States, Canadian laws do not apply. However, Canadian organizations can urge their U.S. affiliates to place pressure to achieve the same restrictions on cigar promotions as apply to cigarettes, whether health warnings, elimination of celebrity endorsements, or restricted distribution.


The promotion of cigars using celebrities who appeal to youth, combined with the visibility and availability of affordable cigars, spells potential disaster. Adolescents either want to be like, or be with, idols like Wayne Gretzky, Demi Moore, Claudia Schiffer, and Arnold Schwarzenagger. They can’t afford the high-priced cigar culture in the magazines, but they can afford Century Sams and Captain Black Sweets.

With one-quarter of U.S. adolescents already experimenting with cigars, we should be compelled to act without delay to prevent the same scenario in Canada. It is the responsibility of the federal government to use the Tobacco Act and other laws to prevent a cigar epidemic, and of the health community to recognize cigar use as a potential health epidemic and to lobby for solutions.

Further Reading and Resources

(available from the National Clearinghouse on Tobacco and Health, 170 Laurier Ave. W. Suite 1000, Ottawa, K1P 5V5, 1-800-267-5234)

  • National Clearinghouse on Tobacco and Health, Cigars in Canada, April 1997
  • Statistics Canada, Production and Disposition of Tobacco Products, Catalogue #32-022-XPB (monthly publication)
  • Statistics Canada, Imports by Commodity, Catalogue #65-007 (monthly publication)
  • Advocacy Institute (Washington, D.C.), SCARC Action Alert: Cigar Trend Alerts Health Activists, December 27, 1996
  • Market Tracking International Ltd., World Tobacco File: Cigars, Smoking Tobacco and Smokeless Tobacco 1995

March 1998

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