The shaping of an illusion Resurrection: How the cigar industry manipulated the media, infiltrated Hollywood and escaped the government's watchful eye despite the product's health hazards.

January 11, 1998|By ALEC KLEIN | ALEC KLEIN,SUN STAFF bTCAB: News researcher Dee Lyon and the Sun library staff contributed to this report

Nick Reed is well-versed in cigars, an able judge of hue, texture and aroma. In the back yard of his home in an affluent New York suburb, he displays a mastery of technique: Cut off the tip, ignite the end, pause between puffs.

Effortlessly, Reed tilts back his head and emits a swirl of smoke shaped like a doughnut - the billowy end product of one of the 20th century's great but shadowy marketing campaigns.

He is 16.

Cigar makers, at about the time Reed was born, conceived a long-range plan to conquer new smokers - women, the young and the wealthy - and laid the foundation for a powerful myth that cigars are cool, sexy and as harmless as afternoon tea.

In a remarkable turnaround for an industry whose customers were dying off only a generation ago, the image of cigars today has even ensnared teen-agers, a taboo audience that manufacturers say they have not courted.

Among the ways marketers resurrected the cigar: They hijacked the credibility of the media. News reports, they understood, were more likely to sway the public than paid advertisements.

"While the consumer of the '80s may harbor built-in skepticism when he reads an advertisement in a magazine or sees a commercial on TV," said an internal memo of the Cigar Association of America Inc. in 1983, "he accepts and believes the public relations message because it reaches him in the form of news and information."

For nearly two decades, cigar makers have manipulated the media into promoting their product, planting news stories and letters to the editor and zeroing in on sympathetic journalists.

Today, cigars are in such vogue that industry ploys may no longer be necessary. The same media that have relentlessly scrutinized the cigarette industry have embraced cigar smoking as a glamorous trend. A database survey of recent newspaper and magazine coverage shows that articles on cigars rarely focus on their hazards.

The industry has also used Hollywood to entrance the public. In a hidden form of advertising, manufacturers have paid Hollywood brokers to get stars to wield cigars on television and in the movies. Fearful of the impact on young viewers, Congress stamped out this practice nearly a decade ago when cigarette manufacturers were caught in the act. But the remedy did not cover cigars.

Meanwhile, federal authorities have been so preoccupied reining the cigarette industry that cigars have slipped by unscathed.

Unlike cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, the cigar carries no U.S. surgeon general warning label. Neither are its ingredients disclosed to federal health authorities. Cigars have even escaped scrutiny as the government hammers out a comprehensive settlement to tighten regulations on cigarette manufacturers.

As a result, the cigar industry, a billion-dollar business catering to an estimated 12 million smokers in the United States, has obscured a simple truth: Cigars contain higher concentrations of tar and nicotine than cigarettes. And, health authorities say, cigars are just as deadly.

"It's the most sophisticated campaign I've seen in a long time," said tobacco expert John Pierce, professor of cancer research at the University of California, San Diego. "It's so sophisticated that no one saw it coming."

In a triumph of image making, the cigar, once a tired old prop of gangsters and grandfathers, has migrated from smoke-filled back rooms to the chambers of the well-to-do and the counters of the 7-Eleven. Everyone, it seems, is lighting up: conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, pop singer Madonna, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, movie star Demi Moore, Hollywood heavy Arnold Schwarzenegger, super-model Claudia Schiffer. Even President Clinton dabbles.

The mood in the industry is as giddy as in a speakeasy during Prohibition: In the past five years, U.S. sales of cigars rose 26 percent to 4.49 billion, led by expensive premium cigars, which nearly tripled to 270 million. Cigar bars, cigar dinners and cigar clubs are popping up from coast to coast.

Cigar makers put forth a widely accepted explanation for their renaissance. They say that a spontaneous movement took hold with the spread of black-tie cigar events. That the launching of Cigar Aficionado magazine, the industry bible, offered a rallying cry. That there was a backlash against political correctness.

"It took everyone by surprise," said Norman F. Sharp, president of the cigar association.

But an in-depth examination, including thousands of internal industry documents, shows that the cigar boom was not an accident.

It was the result of an image so seductive that it enticed young smokers like Nick Reed, the son of a doctor and nurse.

He doesn't have a habit, yet. But a youthful curiosity overcomes his better judgment. "I just wanted to figure out," he said, "why people like this so much."

Making of a myth

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