Cuban cigars are smoking the market

October 02, 1992|By Cigar Association of America, based on U.S. Census and other federal figures.Dallas Morning News

Some say aroma, some say stench, but there seems to be a lot more cigar smoke in the air these days.

A party in Dallas, for example, was going strong the other night when one of the guests opened a cigar box and said reverently, "Cubans."

Soon enough, more than a dozen other guests were puffing away at the fellow's contraband Montecristos that a friend had smuggled in from France.

Dallas-area shop owners report an increase in sales of their premium cigars -- the hand-rolled, long-leaf-tobacco cigars that cost a dollar or more. And a slick new quarterly magazine, Cigar Aficionado, has just been launched in New York.

Special dinners for cigar smokers are also becoming a phenomenon. Usually held in luxury hotels, the events feature single-malt scotches after dinner and a variety of complimentary cigars.

The cachet of smoking a premium cigar has caught on to the point that counterfeiting has become a problem. Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, says fake rings are put on cheap cigars, which are then passed off as high-quality products. This is understandable given the fact that the vaunted Cuban Cohibas can cost $24 each in London.

Mr. Sharp estimates that the U.S. cigar industry loses as much as $25 million a year to illegal imports of Cuban cigars. The ban on Cuban products is 30 years old, but cigars still keep getting through somehow.

"Cigar Aficionado estimates that 15 percent of its readers smoke Cuban cigars on a regular basis," says Jack Ehrmantraut, owner of Edward's Pipe and Tobacco Shop in North Dallas. "If you can get crack cocaine on any street corner, how hard can it be to get in a box of Cuban cigars?"

Mr. Ehrmantraut and other area cigar merchants say that the mystique of Cuban cigars is misplaced, that cigars coming out of the Dominican Republic and Honduras are clearly as good as those made in Havana or Pinar del Rio.

Joe Owens is one of those who is partial to the Dominican and Honduran products.

"Our cigar business is up, and our clientele is loyal," says Mr. Owens, who stores his customers' cigars at no charge. "I ship to a guy in Saudi Arabia every two months. Another one is in Hawaii. They're all over the country."

Like with fine wines, there's a lot to learn about cigars. Styles, shapes, cost, construction, the protocols of smoking, an entire vocabulary unique to cigars.

"We give [new customers] cigars until they find one they like," says Mr. Owens. "Even when they find one, I still won't sell them a box. They have to smoke it a couple months. They have to buy singles, or maybe a few at a time."

Mr. Owens is one of those who objects to the canonization not only of Cuban cigars, but also of expensive ones.

"We have a customer who smokes White Owls," he says. "They're not premium cigars, but he likes them. And that's great -- he found a cigar that suits him."

Mr. Owens is also firmly convinced that there are superb premium cigars for less than $3 each.

"Davidoffs are just status symbols," he says, taking a drag off a Carlton 100 cigarette. "When people leave the ring on an expensive cigar, that irks me. It's just showing they've spent a lot of money. There's no need for the ring. Take it off."

The stogie in America

Year Consumption Per ... ... ... ... .cap.

8.5 billion 269

1930 6.2 billion 167

1940 5.6 billion 132

1950 5.5 billion 115

1960 7.0 billion 133

1970 8.0 billion 137

1980 4.0 billion 55

1990 2.3 billion 28

1991 2.2 billion 26

Note: Per capita figures are for males over 21.

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