A Healthy Bet (11) – The Romantic Lure of a Good Cigar

A Healthy Bet (11) – The Romantic Lure of a Good Cigar

As it appeared in Ante Up Magazine – Sep. 2009

By Frank Toscano, M.D.

Most serious poker players will immediately recognize this scene from one of the most famous poker movies of all time. A smoke-filled room, dozens of railbirds sweating their favorite, a circular table, a blond dealer, the Cincinnati Kid and the Man playing Five Stud heads up. The Man flips up the Jack of Diamonds for a straight flush. The Kid’s face visibly slackens as he shows the Ace of Hearts – Aces Full, a loser.

What happens next is the subject of this month’s column. Edward G. Robinson’s character, Lancey Howard, straightens up a little in his chair, reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a big fat cigar. He lights it with a wooden match, twirls it a little between his fingers and rewards himself for beating the Kid by taking a deep satisfying pull. Eight years later Edward G. Robinson would die from cancer.

The chances of Aces Full losing to a Straight Flush in Five Stud are around one out of 300 Bazillion. The chance that Robinson would die from smoking-related cancer was much much higher.

As the national ad campaigns relentlessly hammer away at the dangers of cigarettes, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that cigars are just as bad and, in some ways, maybe worse. During a future column, I’ll take up the subject of cigarettes in some detail including some new strategies for quitting. For this month, I want to strip away some of the glamour that cigars inexplicably seem to enjoy.

Sadly, many cigar smokers believe that if they don’t inhale that smoking a cigar is relatively safe compared to cigarettes. Not true. Even if you don’t inhale, the carcinogens, toxic chemicals and irritants of cigar smoke come into contact with your lips, tongue, the membranes of your mouth and nose, and even the lungs. Cigar smoking is associated with cancers of the lips, tongue, mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx, lung, pancreas and bladder. It can also cause emphysema, bronchitis, heart disease and, get this, erectile dysfunction.

When it comes to addiction potential, one cigar can contain as much as 20 times the nicotine as a cigarette. Even for those who don’t inhale when they smoke, the mucous membranes of the mouth are quite efficient at absorbing this highly addicting chemical.

Sidestream (second-hand) cigar smoke is even more dangerous to nonsmokers than cigarette smoke. The concentrations of carcinogens, toxic chemicals and irritants including carbon monoxide are higher in a room full of cigar smokers than cigarette smokers.

I don’t mean to get preachy here. I truly understand first hand the physical and psychological pleasures of smoking and how difficult it is to quit. I gave up all tobacco products years ago when my son was born. I did not want him to subconsciously associate the smell of tobacco with the comfort and warmth of a loving hug from his father.

Last year I was invited to play in a twenty-person private poker game at a swank country club. Many of the participants, including quite a few physicians, lit up thick cigars. In spite of how very juicy this game turned out to be, I won’t be back. This is not a moral issue for me but a matter of health. I am grateful that the home poker game I usually frequent forbids smoking.

For some reason, Hollywood continues to glamorize cigars. James Bond, Batman, Wolverine and Ironman all recently featured cigar smokers. Movies featuring poker from Maverick to the Odd Couple rely on cigar smoking characters to set the mood. In one scene from Rounders, Matt Damon’s character, Mike McDermott, schools a room full of poker-playing judges on hand-reading skills. Hardly a character in the room, save Mike himself, is without a cigar. And can you even image a television show or movie depicting Wild Bill Hickok at the poker table without a cigar between his teeth?

I tried several times to compose this column with some wise cracks and my usual smart aleck point of view, but it just didn’t work. The subject matter is just too serious. The bottom line – no matter what Hollywood portrays, cigars are not glamorous. They smell bad and are seriously dangerous for the smoker and those around him. They are banned at most poker rooms so consider banning them from your home game if you haven’t done so already. And if you enjoy lighting up a cigar from time to time, think long and hard about the damage you can do to your body.

I searched the internet for the exact type of cancer that killed Edward G. Robinson. I couldn’t find the answer anywhere but I bet you a nickel it was related to smoking. A lifelong cigar collector and smoker, Robinson was known for saying, “No cigar anywhere is safe from me.” The truth is “No cigar anywhere was safe FOR him.”