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Ladies and Cigars

Aficionadas: Women and Their Cigars
Gwen Martin, Evan J. Elkin
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 2)

Market research conducted in the late 1980s determined that women comprised one-tenth of one percent of the total cigar market in the United States. Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, says that the market has clearly changed in the eight years since this study was done. Based on anecdotal reports from cigar manufacturers and retailers, women appear to be smoking cigars in significantly greater numbers.

For these women, cigars are a relaxing ritual, a meditative experience and a reflection of the level of status and success that they have achieved. Take the case of Cynthia Ekberg Tsai, who runs two East Coast venture capital firms (Tsai Globus Bioventures and MassTech Ventures) and is founder and director of NuGene Technologies, Inc., a gene therapy technology company based at New York University. Tsai started smoking cigars 10 years ago.

"My life is high-stress," she says. "A cigar, for me, is about relaxation. It allows me--requires me--to sit still for an hour! I savor the taste, watch the smoke, get lost in my thoughts." She prefers a smaller ring gauge Davidoff and smokes three or four times a month, on special occasions or with business associates.

Like many of the women interviewed for this article, Tsai says she is more likely to smoke cigars in Europe, where it is common for women to do so. In her experience, many Europeans are downright blasé about women with cigars. She recalls taking a friend to an elegant luncheon in Paris where, "completely unsolicited, the waiter came over and offered us a cigar after our meal. That made quite an impression on me."

Sharp says that statistics support Tsai's observations: There are more women cigar smokers in Europe, with Denmark having the highest per-capita consumption. In Tsai's opinion, the United States has been slower to accept women cigar smokers in a business context as well. Every year she attends the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and doesn't think twice about lighting up a cigar alongside some of the world's top businessmen. Here in the States, Tsai is much more hesitant in doing so.

Tsai may feel that way because she has had a few awkward moments involving cigars. On a 1991 trip to South Africa, for example, she caused a commotion by lighting up in a restaurant. "Everyone, including the chef, came to my table, saying they were so excited--they had never seen a woman smoking a cigar!" Tsai concedes that "it is inevitably a statement for a woman to smoke a cigar--you know you'll attract some attention if you're doing it in public." But, she adds, "It's hardly ever a negative response. And it's also simply about enjoying the pleasures of living."

Edmark (who in 1989 created a popular women's hair accessory called the TopsyTail and is now marketing her new product, the "Bowrette Collection") says she knows that people may assume she is trying to make a statement by smoking a cigar. But she insists, "I smoke them because I enjoy them. The taste and the smoke are really pleasant." Still, she concedes that being a businesswoman who smokes a cigar hasn't hurt her professionally: "I know that by smoking cigars I have created an image and an ambience of success around myself. If people think I'm a mogul, fine!"

Julie Ross, cofounder of the George Sand Society, Santa Monica--a cigar-smoking club that welcomes women and men (there is now a chapter in Manhattan)--has been smoking cigars for 10 years. She prefers Montecristos and Avos, and says she picked up the habit from a friend visiting from Europe. "It's common to see women smoking cigars in Italy," she notes. "And women have always smoked cigars in Holland and Denmark, maybe because historically, equality between men and women has always been the rule there."

Whatever the reason that aficionadas are more common in Europe, Ross notes that cigar smoking is catching on in Southern California. "Our membership is about 60 to 70 percent women, with most of the women successful professionals in their mid-30s and up. But there's another group that's growing--women in their 20s, most of them college and graduate students." Ross says she is especially gratified that the GSS draws both men and women. "In an unusual twist, women are bringing their husbands and boyfriends to our events," she says. "At our last formal dinner, almost every woman in the room was smoking a cigar, even male members' wives."

Far from alienating men, cigar smoking is a ritual that can bond women with each other and the men in their lives. As Ross puts it, "When a man and woman share the love of cigars, it creates a unique intimacy." For example, Michael Sirgado, an attorney with Waters, McPherson, McNeill, often goes to Dunhill's and Davidoff's Manhattan stores with his wife, Jo Anne, also an attorney: "I enjoy a cigar more when my wife picks it out. Going together is a sort of ritual we share."

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