You’re good kid, but you can’t dodge cigar smoke



This column first appeared in Ante Up Magazine in September 2009.

A smoke-filled room, dozens of railbirds sweating their favorite, a circular table, a blond dealer, the Cincinnati Kid and the Man playing five-card stud heads-up. The Man flips up the JD for a straight flush. The Kid’s face visibly slackens as he shows the AH for his losing aces full. 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 Robinson died from cancer.

The chances of aces full losing to a straight flush in five-card stud are about 1 in 300 bazillion. The chance Robinson would die from smoking-related cancer was much better.
As the national ad campaigns relentlessly hammer away at the dangers of cigarettes, it’s easy to lose sight that cigars are just as bad and, in some ways, worse. Sadly, many cigar smokers believe if they don’t inhale that cigars are 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 also can 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 mouth’s mucous membranes are quite efficient at absorbing this highly addicting chemical.
Sidestream (second-hand) cigar smoke is 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.

Last year I played in a 20-person private 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’m grateful the home game I frequent forbids smoking.

For some reason, Hollywood continues to glamorize cigars. James Bond, Batman, Wolverine and Ironman 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 for Mike, is without a cigar. And can you even imagine a TV 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.

There’s a reason smoking is banned from poker rooms, so consider making your home game smoke-free if you haven’t done so.

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.

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.

— An avid poker player, Frank Toscano, M.D. is a board-certified emergency physician with more than 28 years of front-line experience. He’s medical director for Red Bamboo Medi Spa in Clearwater. Email your poker-health questions to

Ante Up Magazine

Ante Up Magazine