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Sure, We Know They're Trendy. But That Doesn't Excuse Bad Air and Bad Manners.

September 29, 1996|Margo Kaufma | Margo Kaufman's last piece for the magazine was on the upscaling of supermarkets

The other day I walked into my office and was greeted by a billow of blue smoke. My contact lenses burned, I felt a wave of nausea and I flung open a window to clear the air of what smelled like wok-fried cowboy boots. My office is in a corner of an airy loft with 15-foot ceilings, and I couldn't imagine what could have permeated this much space. Then it hit me: the latest big thing. "Whoever is smoking a cigar," I shouted, "will you please take it outside?"

Dave, the graphic designer down the hall, walked in, proudly puffing on a 5 5/8-inch Upmann Churchill. "Don't you think they have a wonderful, romantic, masculine aroma?" he asked, holding out the stogie and staring lovingly at the ash. I diplomatically assured him that it was better than the time I was locked in a New York City taxi with an Aramis-soaked cabby.

He was oblivious. "Good cigars have such a remarkable, subtle flavor," said Dave, who concedes that part of the pleasure is the ritual of male bonding that goes with it. He told me about his most memorable smoking experience when he was at a conference in Salzburg, at the Schloss Leopoldskron. "My brother took me to a secret room that Archbishop Firmian had built. It was filled with huge, overstuffed chairs and a gigantic porcelain fireplace. In that room, John F. Kennedy, Churchill, even Goethe had sat and smoked their cigars. I sat there smoking my cigar and thought, wow, if only these walls could talk to me."

They'd probably be saying, "Please rub me down with 409."

"Cigars are special," Dave insisted. "I can really understand why it's such a rage right now."

Frankly, the craze mystifies me, though our society does have a weakness for addictive brown substances. First it was designer chocolate, then coffee and now cigars. Hip restaurants that a year ago banned cigarettes are rushing to accommodate cigar smokers with special cigar bars and cigar nights, the most notable of which is Arnold Schwarzenegger's Schatzi on Main, where Arnold smokes his favorite, the appropriately named Punch Punch, on the first Monday of every month. To date, I've seen ads for cigar cruises, cigar tastings, cigar weekends at Las Vegas casinos. (Can a cigar spa package be far behind?)

Smoke shops are popping up faster than espresso bars and frozen yogurt outlets, each boasting the finest puros from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico--coronas, presidentes, robostos and panatelas supposedly hand-rolled by legendary Cuban maestro de puro who fled Castro's regime with a pocketful of seeds. Also on sale are nifty accouterments like "Exquisite Precious Wood Smoker's Furniture" (fancy cedar-lined humidors designed to re-create the tropical climate in which the tobacco was grown), double-edged guillotine cutters and the shockingly slick and thick magazine Cigar Aficionado. (Editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken is the conspicuous consumer who paid $575,000 at Sotheby's for JFK's humidor).

Flipping through the latest issue, I was struck by the absence of surgeon general warnings on the numerous cigar ads. Niki Singer, senior vice president at Cigar Aficionado, acknowledged that while cigars aren't about to be sold at vitamin stores, the health dangers are not that great: "We have lots of lots of doctors who are subscribers, who say it's beneficial in reducing stress. We certainly know that it doesn't have the health risks of cigarettes." Dr. Raymond J. Melrose, a pathology professor at the USC Dental School, disagrees. He believes the boom is a tobacco industry marketing ploy. "There is no such thing as a safe tobacco product," he says. He faxed me over an American Cancer Society fact sheet that states that cigar smokers have four to 10 times the risk of dying from laryngeal, oral and esophageal cancers as nonsmokers.

Still, far be it from me to condemn a phenomenon without experiencing it firsthand. I dragged my friend Debbie to Phillip Dane's Cigar Lounge in Beverly Hills. An amiable 29 year old, Dane has been smoking cigars since he was 15. "It's one of the last great vestiges for getting away from the craziness," he says. "You take your time, kick back, enjoy your cigar. We get a wide range of customer, from the young, hip smoker to the older, more accomplished ones."

Dane gives us a tour of his humidor, essentially a huge walk-in closet where the cigars are kept at 70% humidity, and lockers for private storage can be rented for $75 a month. Unlike cigarettes, which contain additives and paper, cigars are entirely made of three types of tobacco: filler, binder and wrapper. "A lot of time and energy and love goes into crafting cigars," says Dane, adding that in the current boom market, many manufacturers could sell three times as many cigars as they produce. (Imports rose from 100 million in the 1980s to 176.5 million last year, and this year imports are expected to top 240 million.) Cuban cigars are, of course, illegal, but connoisseurs have no trouble finding them.

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