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Small Cigars, Big Business

Aficionados are eager for a 10-minute smoke, and the industry has heeded the call
Mark Weissenberger
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004

There's a trend emerging in the premium cigar industry, that of the smaller variety.

Small cigars, many of them inconspicuously packed in unassuming tins or stiff cardboard, have emerged virtually undetected onto the market led by releases from popular, well-known brands. But have no fear, big-cigar smokers. Tiny cigars will not usurp the cigar aficionado's desire for a full-sized, higher-ring-gauged cigar; they simply provide the time-constrained smoker with the option for a quickie.

"I don't mind them if I do not have time to smoke a Churchill," cigaraficionado.com user Hberry wrote on one of the Web site's forums. "[Tins are] also good for non-cigar-smoking friends who want to have a cigar, [so] you don't have to give them a seven-dollar cigar." Forum member voodoo child wrote, "I smoke them mostly when I'm someplace where I'm not allowed to smoke, but I need a fix."

When it comes to cigars, it seems that the all-American trend of rushing through every daily activity has proven beneficial only for the smallest of smokes. Brevity is the allure of small cigars. Add a draconian antismoking law to your area and you've got the proper recipe that'll keep consumers craving a 10-minute smoke. Cigar manufacturers have not overlooked this growing fancy, and many have begun to introduce a variety of small, premium handmade cigars, generally with ring gauges of 36 or less and lengths of 5 inches or less. "Due to new smoking restrictions, people are looking for a quick smoke during work and leisure breaks," says Jim Colucci, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Altadis U.S.A. Inc., maker of more than a dozen tiny cigars and no stranger to the small-cigar market.

While the demand for small premium cigars is increasing, the vast majority of small cigars sold in the United States continue to be machine-made brands. Unlike handmade cigars, which are made entirely by hand by a skilled roller using a few simple tools and delicate high-quality wrapper leaves and long filler, machine-made smokes are made entirely by machine, with lower-grade wrappers and binders and, frequently, short (cut) filler in place of long filler.

Of the 7 billion cigars sold in America last year—most of which are machine-made—2.5 billion, or 35.4 percent, were small cigars, says Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America. That represents an increase from 2.2 billion in 2001 and 2.3 billion in 2002.

Cuba's cigar industry also makes a variety of small cigars, including Clubs, which measure 3 3/4 inches long and are as thin as a pencil, and Minis, which are half an inch shorter and considerably thinner. They come in cardboard boxes and are available in some of the island's greatest brand names, including Cohiba and Montecristo.

But what exactly is a "small" cigar? According to the U.S. government, "small," or "little," cigars, as they are known in the American cigar industry, are defined on the basis of weight. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau defines small cigars as cigars that weigh three pounds or less per 1,000 units; anything bigger is considered a "large" cigar.

So-called cigarillos, the huge majority of which, like small cigars, are low-priced and machine-made, make up the lighter end of the large-cigar market. Over the last three years, U.S. cigarillo sales as a percentage of large-cigar sales have jumped from 45.9 percent in 2001 to 49.2 percent in 2002 to 49.4 percent in 2003, according to the Cigar Association. Together, small cigars and cigarillos accounted for 67.7 percent of U.S. cigar sales in 2003.

Not surprisingly, according to a recent poll conducted by cigaraficionado.com, a clear majority of the respondents who have smoked a small cigar—65 percent—said they favored handmade cigars over machine-made ones. Furthermore, 39 percent said they rarely smoked small, tinned cigars, 29 percent said they do so on occasion, and only 1 percent said they smoked small cigars all the time—further proof that you needn't cast away those unruly robustos and indolent double coronas just yet.


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