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Smoking in Peace

David Shaw
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

(continued from page 2)

"Madam," he said, "don't even think it. This is Paris."

But Los Angeles and New York and Philadelphia and Boston are not, alas, Paris, and Zaretsky's experience is all too typical.

Although every cigar smoker has his own horror story to tell, the true measure of the anti-cigar mood in the country today is best measured not by Ronald Reagan's favorite yardstick--personal anecdotes--but by the two official acts that the United States seems to engage in with particular zeal--imposing taxes and passing laws. Not only is the federal excise tax on cigars going up--to 12.75% of the manufacturer's price--as of January 1, 1993, according to the Cigar Association of America, but in recent years, more states than you could shake a corona at have also begun imposing special taxes on cigars. The last count by the Cigar Association showed 35 states with cigar taxes; only seven states had such laws before 1980. I used to think the 33% tax on rental cars in France was confiscatory, but Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Minnesota have cigar taxes of 35% of the wholesale price; Hawaii's cigar tax is 40%; Washington's is a staggering 64.9%. Increasingly, some cities and counties also tax cigars; in Alabama alone, 35 cities and counties have such taxes, the Cigar Association says.

Virtually every state in the union now has one kind of anti-smoking ordinance or another as well, and an increasing number of cities have passed or are considering similar laws. I understand the impulse behind both the laws and the taxes, of course: The U.S. Surgeon General says smoking is unhealthy, and many people also find smoke unpleasant. There is no doubt that cigarette smoking is unhealthy. I've never smoked one.

Cigars? Well, about a dozen years ago, my wife suggested I start smoking a cigar after dinner. "It will give you something to do with your hands so you don't sit there drumming your fingers impatiently while I'm sipping my espresso," she said.

I called my doctor immediately for advice. (We were on vacation in Switzerland at the time; he was in Los Angeles.) I asked him what he thought of my wife's idea. He assured me that one cigar a day would pose no threat to my health, so I gallantly acquiesced to my wife's request. I've been smoking one cigar a night, four to six nights a week, ever since. Most cigar smokers I know these days also smoke in moderation--from three or four a week to one or two a day--and I have yet to see a study that says moderate cigar smoking poses a significant health hazard.

What's the difference between cigars and cigarettes? Among other things, most cigar smokers don't inhale--and there really is no such animal as a "moderate" cigarette smoker. Cigarettes are addictive, so people who smoke them almost invariably smoke a lot of them. Studies have convinced me that when you have a lot of people smoking a lot of cigarettes in public, you're going to have a lot of non-smokers whose lungs get poisoned too. And you're also going to have a lot of non-smokers who are annoyed by passive smoke for reasons other than health--because they're allergic to smoke or because they just don't like the way it smells or looks. Such people, in my view, have every right to be protected from both health risks and aesthetic annoyance.

But in restaurants, I favor the traditional American art of compromise a smoking section and a nonsmoking section--thus protecting both the rights and health of the non-smoker and the rights and pleasure of the smoker. Equally important, I would argue that within the smoking section, cigars as well as cigarettes should be allowed. So far as I know, only a few places (commercial airliners, for example) specifically prohibit cigars (and pipes) by law, but many, many places--including the vast majority of restaurants--prohibit cigars (and pipes) as a matter of policy, even though they permit cigarettes.

Some restaurateurs say the difference is that cigar smoke is stronger and travels further.

"We serve a lot of fine wines, and cigar smoke can affect older Bordeaux," says Herb Vegara, maître d' at the Everest Room in Chicago. "But people are open-minded here; you can go smoke a cigar in one of the bathrooms."

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