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A Tobacco Row

With Popularity Cutting Into Supplies, Premium Cigar Lovers Are a Bit Huffy

March 13, 1997|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you think it's hard finding a Tickle Me Elmo doll? Try finding an Arturo Fuente double corona or a Gloria Cubana Wavell.

Ever since cigars became a Generation X craze, the exploding demand for premium cigars has far surpassed the limited supply. The result is a collective howl from longtime cigar lovers who can't find their favorite brands.

The tantrums of a child deprived of his desire is nothing compared to the griping of a smoker without his or her favorite stogie. I should know. I'm one of the complainers.

I took up this vice about a year before the fad hit fully. In the past nine months, however, my favorite brand--the Arturo Fuente double corona, a stubby cigar with a mild taste--has become as elusive as that ticklish doll.

When my wife tried to buy my favorite brand for me for Christmas, the clerk at my local cigar store sold her a "similar," more expensive cigar, explaining that my brand was sold out--again.

On the rare occasion the Arturo Fuente is in stock, the merchants impose a frustrating three-cigar limit per customer.

According to an industry insiders, cigar makers last year struggled to fill an estimated 80 million in back orders for premium cigars.

"We are having a problem getting everything," said Roland Short, manager of the Cigar Co. in Pasadena. "It's a handmade agricultural product. They can only make so many."

Unlike other manufacturers, cigar makers cannot simply crank up the factory machinery when demand increases. Cigar tobacco must be harvested from select regions, aged, fermented and then rolled by hand.

One of the positive side effects of the cigar craze is that skilled rollers who once earned $1 a day in the Dominican Republic have taken advantage of the demand for their services and have begun to receive $15 a day.

The other effect is that cigar stores are sprouting like weeds throughout the city.

But that has only fed the demand for premium cigars.

A chart that marks the sales growth of cigars in the United States looks like the flight path of the Space Shuttle. Between September 1995 and September 1996, the number of cigars imported into the U.S. jumped 63.2%. That represents the sale of 27.9 million cigars.

But cigar smokers like Eric Rose still can't find their favorite brand. An aficionado for 10 years, Rose prefers the rich, spicy taste of a La Gloria Cubana Wavell.

"I often feel as though it would be easier to win the lottery than to find my favorite cigar," he lamented.

The highest demand, according to industry surveys, are for Arturo Fuente, Gloria Cubana, Davidoff, Partagas and Romeo Y Julieta cigars.

And then there are the higher prices. Because of the demand, Short said manufacturers have been raising prices about twice a year for a total increase of almost 50% annually. Premium cigars that once fetched an average price of $3 each are now $5 or more.

Roger Artinian, a 10-year cigar smoker who favors the robust taste of a El Rey Del Mundo, is a club member at Cigars by Chivas in Pasadena, where he has a humidified locker to store his stogies.

As a member, he gets first crack at incoming cigar orders so he has a better chance of finding his favorite brands.

"If you've already found what you like, you don't want to have to look around at other stuff," he said.

But what Artinian can't get around is the higher prices. "Of course I'm frustrated. The prices have gone up."

None of this is forever.

Dale Scott, author of "How to Select and Enjoy Premium Cigars and Save Money" (Coast Creative, 1995), believes the cigar craze will peter out in two or three years, bringing back the days when longtime smokers can easily find their cherished brands.

In the meantime, smokers shouldn't fret, he said. The market has produced dozens of lesser-known brands that have not increased in price and are readily available.

Scott suggested frustrated smokers experiment with other brands until they find an acceptable substitute.

In their quest, cigar smokers will inevitably come across some poor-quality cigars made by companies that have entered the market to take advantage of the skyrocketing demand.

But the fun of smoking cigars, Scott said, is trying new brands.

"I still get a kick out of trying a new cigar," he said. "There is nothing like finding a new cigar."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Up in Smoke

Despite the increase in imports of premium cigars, demand is far surpassing supply in the United States.

Imported premium cigars, in millions: 1996 Projected.

* Source: Cigar Aficionado

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