Smoldering Desires

Women venture into the realm of cigar smoking

by Jessica Strelitz

A current spoof commercial on the radio is for a course that teaches women how to smoke cigars. "The course will cost women $150 dollars for instruction and supplies; $290 dollars if you're a man who wants to watch." Suddenly, chomping on a stogie has taken on a new meaning. Women are rapidly joining the ranks of cigarophiles in the US and although they only constitute one percent of the cigar smoking population, they have made a controversial impact.

In the mid 1960's, there were 9 billion cigars sold in the US a year. When the Surgeon General first came out with the information that nicotine was bad, the smoking population dropped drastically. Until now. The imports of premium cigars have increased 29 percent over the last three years. The number of cigar sales increased over 150 percent between 1993 and 1995. Smoking two cigars in a sitting will not only last you longer than five cigarettes, but also eliminates some of the health burden because you are not inhaling the smoke.

But now, joining the ranks of cigar lovers Dave Letterman and Danny DeVito, are Sharon Stone, Demi Moore and Madonna. Linda Evangalista was on the cover of the fall issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine. It was sold out in Pittsburgh when I went in search of a copy. The clerk at Barnes and Noble shook his head at me and sighed, "What a beautiful magazine, what a beautiful cover. She made me want to smoke cigars, and I'm allergic to smoke."

The scene with women smoking cigars today is upscale. Special cigar dinners, sponsored by upscale hotels like the Ritz-Carlton, feature rare wines, gourmet cooking and choice cigars. These events are becoming very popular, especially with young, urban professionals. The atmosphere is appealing to women. Cigars smoke slow, so there is a chance to sit and talk. They are conversation pieces. The women become conversation pieces, too.

Whether it be a 'young thing', a 'woman thing' or 'trendy thing', it's happening everywhere. Cigar smoking isn't restricted to just the upper crust of society. Even though actresses make it popular, they aren't the one's helping to fuel the over $100 million dollar a year industry in this country. Women of all social backgrounds from students to mothers are exploring this new vice.

Audrey Grube, a student and member of the Carnegie Mellon University cigar club, has been smoking cigars for about a year. She talked about her experiences of cigar smoking in public. "Some people were a little surprised at seeing a woman smoke a cigar. It was not particularly negative feedback, but a little sexist in that it addressed the cultural expectation that it is not normal for a woman to smoke a cigar. I have also received positive feedback from people who though it was 'cool' for me to be unorthodox."

This is a common theme among college women. All that I spoke to had first smoked with a man, either their boyfriend a male friend or their father. None of them, even members of the club, were die hard smokers. They did it for the taste or a moment of celebration. Mostly, they did it for the reactions.

Kelly Bowles, another student and club member started smoking at a party where she was the only woman present. As women started to show up, they made a lot of negative comments on her smoking. "The girls said they felt intimidated and not comfortable with my behavior. I was perceived as being bitchy, overly self-confident, to the point of arrogance. I was smoking cigars because I had fun with it with my guy friends, and the reactions it caused in the other girls. Feeling like I was back to being one of the guys felt good. "

Another motif in the interviews was that of liberation. Because the behavior of smoking cigars is seen by society as unconventional there is always conversation on the habit. Women smokers receive one of two looks from men; either "Hey, come over here" or "God, that is disgusting." Lisa Essig, a student and casual cigar smoker says, " It's a man thing. Half of the men think it's sexy, half think it's bad. You may not care what men think, but you're always highly aware of it."

Jim Belushi said in "Cigar Aficionado," "Women should stay away from cigar smoking, it's none of their business." Cigar smoking for men is their down time. The long drags and slow burn of a room full of smokers creates time for conversation and bonding. Talking and communication is facilitated, especially in a cigar bar, which tends to be a quiet relaxed atmosphere compared to a typical beer hall. At Blooms cigar bar (bloom is a powder which naturally forms on the cigar wrapper from the tobacco's exuding oils) in Pittsburgh, Saturday is time for Cigar Camp. While the wives (and girlfriends) shop, men are encouraged to drop by, or be dropped off, for the afternoon and relax with a good smoke. It's Winston Churchill and Rush Limbaugh. It's man time.

But women like smoking cigars for some of the same reasons. Says Grube, " It's relaxing and a fun thing to do with another person who appreciates cigars the way you do. Being censured by some makes you feel that other cigar appreciators know and understand something special about you." Being unique and set apart from the rest of the women out there separates a female cigar smoker from cigarette smokers. There is a whole lingo to cigar smoking. The aroma of a burning cigar is different from the bouquet of an unlit one. Anyone can pick up a pack of Camels. How many can walk into a cigar shop to praise the new Double Coronas?

Men can bond through the smoke. Women can bond with men through the haze as well. The day may come in the future where Sally congratulates Barbara with a slap on the back and a Phillies Blunt, but that day is not now. For so long as women peek their head around the corners of cigar shops doors, they are taking baby steps. But I am prepared to kick back and take a drag on my Havana Especiales (smuggled by college friends from Canada; ssshh- don't tell) and sip my Smirnoff martini until another woman walks up to me and asks "Hey, just how do you hold this thing anyway?"