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Igniting Cigar Puffery

Manufacturers took the industry from near-ashes by lighting up media with sophisticated PR--from news articles to images of stogie-wielding celebrities.

February 12, 1998|ALEC KLEIN | BALTIMORE SUN

Nick Reed is well-versed in cigars, an able judge of hue, texture and aroma. In the backyard 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. 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 and sexy.

In a remarkable turnaround for an industry whose customers were dying off only a generation ago, the image of cigars today has even ensnared teenagers, 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 Assn. 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 also has 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.

Until this week, when the Federal Trade Commission for the first time ordered five cigar makers to report advertising and marketing expenses, federal authorities have been so preoccupied with reining in the cigarette industry that cigars have slipped by unscathed.

Unlike cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, the cigar carries no U.S. surgeon general warning label. Nor 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, supermodel Claudia Schiffer. Even President Clinton dabbles.

In the last five years, U.S. sales of cigars rose 26% 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 Assn.

Nearly two decades ago, cigar manufacturers did not concern themselves with young smokers. They had enough trouble figuring out why adults didn't like cigars. Overall sales had been dropping an average of 5% a year since their height in 1964.

"We were very concerned about the inextricable, relentless decline in the cigar industry, and we felt we had to try something," recalled Edgar M. Cullman Jr., chief executive of General Cigar Holdings Inc., a market leader in premium cigars.

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