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LATEST FLAME : A new generation is getting fired up over cigars. But when the smoke clears, will health concerns win out over fashion? : More young men and women are lighting up, whether for pure pleasure, ritual or as a statement or accessory.

November 10, 1995|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like most self-respecting guys in their 20s, Gerald Lane worries about becoming his dad. The 9-to-5, the tired clothes and the annual vacation to the usual place. No chance, don't want any of it.

But Lane, 24, who lives right off the ocean in Sunset Beach, does like to emulate his father in one way. The old man loves cigars, the fatter the better, and so does Lane.

"I used to hate the smell of them; now that's all changed," he mumbled, a big Jamaican job wedged between his teeth. "We'll light up together, sit down and watch a game or something.

"It's kind of like a truce between us."

Lane has company in his appreciation.

While cancer specialists shout warnings about health risks, and those who hate the odor recoil in the cigar's wake, more people, especially those in their 20s, are taking up the habit.

Whether a wispy fad or something solid, cigars are glowing more than ever. Celebrities are helping build the fire, with longtime smokers such as Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger being joined by photo-friendly newcomers. Even actress Drew Barrymore and model Linda Evangelista, not women you'd think would like to be seen through a haze, say they love them.

Indeed, in the youth crowd, women apparently enjoy cigars almost as much as men do. Restaurants, nightclubs and bars in Orange County and beyond now offer co-ed cigar-tasting dinners--called smokers--for the truly hooked. There are newsletters, at least one glossy cigar magazine, and even a major league racehorse was named after them. Cigar, a dominant symbol if ever there was one, recently added the Breeder's Cup Classic to his string of turf victories.

To some, there's nothing finer than a good meal with friends bookended by expensive smoke and liquor, another bow to the sweet life. Others confess that it's more personal, and they quietly light up at home, perhaps while sipping brandy and reading a book.

Then there's the club set, who have to be with it; a cigar imparts a thin cloud of style to its owner. And, finally, some fans just think they're funny, a stinking good evocation of Hemingway, Castro, mobsters, Borscht Belt comics and David Letterman.

"It's really about my dad's generation, the guys who grew up in the '40s and '50s," Lane said. "That makes it kind of an in-joke. [But] once you start tasting them, you get into them for different reasons."

The popularity surge is supported by groups who have markedly different agendas. The American Cancer Society agrees with the Tobacco Institute, a Washington-based lobbying group, that the smoke is getting thicker out there.

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"I'm in my early 30s, and among people my age and younger, smoking cigars is the cool thing to do," said Margaret Edwards, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society in Orange County. "I went to the Taste of Newport, and there were cigars everywhere. It's a big climbing thing for social status."

Tom Lauria from the Tobacco Institute's media relations wing said sales of cigars are way up. Although the institute doesn't track specific numbers, he claimed that about 2.3 billion cigars were sold last year, up from "just 1 billion sold a few years ago." The figures were echoed by a recent NBC news report.

"It used to be that cigarettes were 96% of the market, with the remaining 4% divided among cigars, pipe [and other] tobacco," he said. "Now, cigarettes are down to 94%, which doesn't seem like a huge drop, but in a $47-billion market, that's considerable."

Any talk of higher sales is bad news to Dr. Robert Eagan, a former smoker and the medical director of St. Joseph Hospital's regional cancer center in Orange. While cigars may be better for you than cigarettes--simply because they tend not to be inhaled--all smoke is dangerous smoke.

"Cigar smokers have a three times higher risk than nonsmokers of getting cancer," Eagan explained. "And if you smoke cigarettes, a pipe and cigars, your risk goes up 10 times . . . the [cigar] smoker who inhales is in big trouble."

That worries Eric Bassett, a 29-year-old from Newport Beach, but not enough to stop him. Bassett considers himself a recreational user who smokes only a few cigars a week, mostly on the golf course (another growing fad among those in their 20s) or at smokers. His favorite smoker is the at El Torito Grill in Fashion Island Newport Beach, and his favorite cigars are Fonsecas from the Dominican Republic, $85 for a box of 25.

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"I smoke because it's a trend," Bassett admitted. "All my friends are into it. Why is it a trend? It's just another funny thing to do. It's like in the movie 'Caddyshack,' where all these guys are on the golf course smoking. . . . It's corny."

As for the health hazards, he believes moderation is a reasonable approach. "My dad's a dentist, and he shows me pictures where they had to cut people's lips off because they chewed tobacco. I think about it, but I don't go overboard. It's relaxing to have one once in awhile."

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