Tobacco and its users may be on the run from public opinion, but stogies, even expensive ones, are riding a boomlet of popularity with younger people.


August 11, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

O Romeo y Julieta! Wherefore art thou Romeo y Julieta?

In an era when cigarette smokers and manufacturers have faced assault on several fronts, puffing on a cigar has become quite the trend, and many of the new cigar aficionados are in their 20s and 30s.

"It's a cool thing to do," said 25-year-old Jonathan Julian, who puffed on a Punch from the Dominican Republic as he played pool in Fells Point with his girlfriend, 26-year-old Gail Johnson, who had a stogie of her own.

"I've been smoking since college, but not good cigars," he said. "Now I can afford them."

Sales of premium cigars, which range from a couple of bucks to more than $20 a smoke, are on the rise, so much so that some of the more popular brands -- among them Macanudos, Arturo Fuentes and Romeo y Julieta Vintage -- are becoming hard to find.

"The supply problem is just getting worse and worse," said David Giambelluca, manager of Fader's tobacconists on East Baltimore Street downtown. "Maybe we can't get Macanudos or Partagas, the top premium cigars. And when you do get them, they trickle in."

Compounding the supply problem is the fact that there will be a lag of at least three years for cigar producers to catch up to demand. That's because the tobacco leaves used in premium cigars must age for three years -- more for some brands.

Considering how much Americans used to smoke, what we're seeing now is more like a boomlet. In 1994, cigar sales increased to 2.33 billion units, the first rise since 1970, according to figures compiled by the Cigar Association of America. Last year, sales increased another 10 percent to nearly 2.6 billion cigars. The association estimates there are 10 million cigar smokers in the United States, who on average smoke 8 cigars a week.

Still, that pales in comparison with sales in 1970, when Americans smoked nearly 8 billion cigars.

But why, in an environment where anti-smoking sentiment seems to have won the day, where smokers are banished from homes, offices and many restaurants, is a habit that was once associated with big-city politicians, gangsters and grandfathers on the rise?

For one thing, cigar smokers believe their stogies are less hazardous to their health than cigarettes.

"You don't smoke 10 cigars a day," Julian said. "And you don't inhale it."

But health professionals warn that cigar smokers may be deceiving themselves.

"Contrary to popular belief, cigars are not a 'safe' alternative to cigarettes," said Jacqueline D. McLeod, president of the American Lung Association, in a March statement addressing cigar smoking.

"In fact, overall cancer death rates for men who smoke cigars are 34 percent higher than cancer death reates among nonsmokers," she said. "Cigar smokers have higher death rates from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and are four to 10 times more likely to die from laryngeal, oral and esophageal cancers than nonsmokers."

Dr. Joseph Adams, a Towson internist who is a volunteer with the Maryland chapter of the American Lung Association, acknowledged that cigars cause heart disease and lung cancer at a lower rate than cigarettes, because people tend to smoke them less and don't inhale.

"But tobacco is tobacco is tobacco. It's all potentially addictive and it all causes cancer and other diseases," he said. "I have a number of patients who have emphysema despite the fact that they only smoked cigars and claimed they didn't inhale."

Another reason for the increase in the popularity of cigars is the aura that surrounds them: The cigar connoisseur is someone who is affluent, with discriminating taste, one who enjoys the finer things in life.

One look at Cigar Aficionado, the slick publication that has become the bible of the cigar boom, confirms that impression. The summer issue, which runs more than 400 pages, features Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover and profiles of such cigar smoking luminaries as Dan Rather, Paul Anka and Anne Archer (yes, the number of women smoking cigars is also increasing, although they still make up less than 2 percent of the total). The magazine is filled with ads for Tiffany jewelry, Mercedes-Benz cars and Piaget watches.

In an advertisement that ran in the February issue of Direct magazine, Cigar Aficionado reported that the median income for its 150,000 readers was $109,000 and the average net worth was $1.1 million. Sixty-five percent of the readers described themselves as managers or professionals, and a quarter were chief executive officers or chief financial officers of companies.

In Baltimore, upscale restaurants like Ruth's Chris Steak House downtown are offering cigar dinners that feature special menus, accompanied by fine wines and expensive brandies, ports and cognacs. Manager Scott St. Blanc said he started with rolling humidors, had as many as five, and eventually built a large humidor, a climate-controlled storage unit, that holds 37 cigar varieties. (If you really want to spoil yourself, order the Davidoff Double R off the wine list, for $23.50)

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