Lighting up a puff of class

For Greta Garbo and Virginia Woolf, cigars were an eccentric indulgence. Now they have become a fad, writes Karen Kissane.

NO WONDER cigar smoking has always been a guy thing. It takes some confidence to partake publicly of such an evil-smelling indulgence. If a human body produced in company the sorts of fumes given off by cigars, its owner would leave the room covered in blushes. But now, it seems, women have come an even longer way, baby; in New York and London, those wombs of the trend, cigars are back, cigars are cool, and women are smoking them.

Forget Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx; we’re talking Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Madonna. Images of cigar-chomping women are also turning up here; New Woman magazine has one on its index page this month. It will not help health campaigners who are already struggling to make an impact on women’s smoking rates.

There have always been avant-garde women with a taste for cigars, such as Virginia Woolf and Greta Garbo, but their indulgence was a flirtation with personal eccentricity. This is a trend. There is a mini-boom in cigar-smoking among America’s well-heeled of both sexes: New York has cigar clubs, cigar bars and cigar dinners. In Los Angeles, women cigar-lovers have formed their own association named after George Sand, the 19th-century French writer.

It is, after all, one of the safer ways left to be wicked.

And it has always had a certain social cachet, with lingering associations of late nights in gentlemen’s clubs over glasses of expensive liqueur, of satin smoking jackets and stuffed leather couches, of a pleasured, leisured, privileged class.

Kate, a 20-something Melbourne professional, confesses to loving cigars for “the color and the smell and the associations of being secluded and genteel and private, the whole smoking- lounge thing, where men could retire to the smoking lounge and leave the crowd behind and discuss the world. My Dad was always in that mood when he smoked a cigar; cigarettes were an everyday thing.”
Her father used to give her the occasional puff when she was a child; she used to buy them for him at Christmas and now she buys them for herself. “I’ve only ever smoked them when I’ve been drunk. I like everything about them; I like the smell and the taste and the wooden boxes they come in with the thin paper lining that smells of tobacco . . . Rather than the really big ones, you can get the little cigarillos.

Sometimes I buy the big ones that come in silver tubes, Romeo y Julieta.”
Jenny, who is at home with a child and married to a busy Sydney executive, took up cigars to keep her husband company when they have a drink together at the end of the day. She smokes two or three small, mild Cafe Cremes a week. “I used to be a cigarette smoker, years and years ago, and I gave them up for health reasons. With my cigar I just hold it, really, and have the occasional little suck. There’s no way you could do a drawback. There couldn’t be any damage done to my lungs.” For her, cigars are associated with sundowners on the veranda or on their boat, with their special time as a couple.

While even Freud acknowledged that, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, for men as well as women the associations are important. Cigar fancier Richard was drawn to them during his prepubescent years while watching James Garner playing that urbane charmer, Bret Maverick, smoking cigars. He smokes cheroots, which he says are long but not torpedo-like, and if enjoying a cigar after dinner he does not hesitate to offer one to any women present.

In America, the cigar’s newly glam image is further glossed by the magazine Cigar Aficionado, which carries a mix of classic upmarket men’s magazine stories and pieces on cigar etiquette, cigar reviews, and cigar-friendly restaurants. It brags that the new cigar-smoker earns an average of $US185,000 a year and is worth about $US1.5 million. The magazine has organised scores of Big Smokes, restaurant parties in which a menu of cigars is chosen to complement the menu of dishes.

Australia had one of its most-publicised cigar dinners earlier this year at Sydney’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where 40 men and five women sat down to a $200-a-head dovetailing of food, wine and cigars. Also in Sydney, the Hotel Intercontinental has set up a cigar room with a humidor, which is to a cigar- lover what a cellar is to those who cherish their wine. It protects the fragile beasties in this case, all $30,000 worth of them with precisely controlled temperature and humidity.

Melbourne has had twice-yearly cigar dinners since 1993 and, with the help of tobacco retailers, has just established its own Cigar Society. Australian importers are not expecting the overseas trend to have much impact on the market here; we smoke between 45 and 50 million cigars a year and the figures are declining. Garry Browne, the deputy managing director of importers Stuart Alexander, says this is largely due to price rises. The popular Henri Wintermans Corona Deluxe is now $5, and the most expensive Davidoff is $58.

But customers might also be wary of the bad juju on the health front. Anne Learmont of the Quit campaign says that women’s rate of smoking is dropping by only one or two per cent a year, compared to 10 to 15 per cent for men, even though it can give women fertility problems and complications in pregnancy.

Learmont agrees that most cigar smokers protect their lungs by not drawing back but says that it can still cause oral cancer and cancer of the gum and tongue. What does that mean? “Your teeth fall out, among other things,” she says.

One decade a girl’s fashion statement is her cigar; the next, it’s a set of dentures. Whatever you may think of the first, the second is definitely not a good look.

First published in The Age.