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Smoking in Peace

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

(continued from page 8)

Within nanoseconds, I heard a loud, ugly snarl from what seemed like 20 or 25 feet away, to my left and many rows further back:

"Put that smelly thing out."

I turned in the direction of the voice. It belonged to a woman who looked to be in her mid-30s, although her face was reddened and twisted in a paroxysm of such rage that it was difficult at first to be absolutely certain of anything--her age, her gender, even her species.

"I said put that goddamn thing out. It stinks to high heaven," the leather-lunged charmer repeated when she saw me peering, perplexed, in her direction.

I held the cigar aloft so she could see it clearly.

"I haven't lit it yet," I said, as reasonably as I could. "You can't possibly smell it. Besides, it's a good cigar, and good cigars don't stink."

"I can smell it all right," she shouted back, "and I can smell you, too. You both stink."

I was convinced that she couldn't smell anything--except perhaps her own bile (it was a warm evening), but as much as I usually enjoy the dialectic, I make it a policy never to argue with fanatics on three subjects--religion, politics and cigars. I put my cigar back in its wooden case.

When I told this story to various cigar smoking friends over the next few weeks, they all laughed. But they were laughing at me, not at what I considered to be the most recent proof of the axiom that to be a Dodgers fan, you have to have a screw loose some place. To a man, they all said they'd had virtually identical experiences in various locales--in restaurants, in their offices, at friends' houses, even in their own homes. They'd pull out a cigar, and before they could light it, someone would begin yelping that it smelled foul and that they should extinguish it instantly, under penalty of death. They couldn't believe I was so surprised by the daffy Dodgers' reaction.

I'm no longer surprised.

In the course of two months of interviews for this article, I heard the same story over and over and over again, albeit with subtle variations. I also heard a number of far-from-subtle accounts of what happens when a cigar suddenly appears in what one would normally consider a civilized setting.

An entrepreneur in Los Angeles told me he saw one man punch a cigar smoker in the face when the smoker didn't put his cigar out quickly enough after a complaint. A tobacconist in New York told me that several of his customers had had their cigars literally snatched from their lips or their fingers by irate people who happened to be standing or sitting nearby.

Bill Johnson, general manager of Anthony's Restaurant in Houston, told me that when he was working at another restaurant a few years ago, one of his best customers--"an elderly gentleman, the sweetest guy in the world"--was smoking a cigar after dinner late one night when a woman walked over from another table, picked up the glass of water on his table and poured it over his head.

"She told him, 'I thought I'd do something to ruin your night like you ruined mine,"' Johnson recalled.

"The poor guy said that if she'd asked him, he would have been glad to put it out, but she didn't ask him or anyone else; she just dumped the water on him. He said it was the last time he'd ever smoke a cigar in any restaurant."

Many cigar smokers have made similar decisions in recent years as the anti-smoking and, especially, the anti-cigar hysteria has reached frenzied proportions. It's just not worth the hassle, they've decided. Even if no one actually objects to your cigar, you're so worried someone will object that you can't sit back and enjoy the cigar. That undermines one of the essential pleasures of smoking a cigar; as H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, said--I have his picture and these words framed in my bathroom--"I smoke cigars when I'm relaxed and happy."

It's difficult to be either relaxed or happy when so many people treat cigar smoking as if it ranked somewhere between child molestation and gang rape on the scale of antisocial activities.

"I smoke six or seven cigars a day," says Arthur Zaretsky, proprietor of the Famous Smoke Shop in New York. "I used to have a cigar in my mouth when I left my apartment in the morning and when I left my shop in the evening. But people even complain about cigars on the street now, and I don't want to have uncomfortable situations with people saying nasty things to me and me having to say things back to them, so now the only place I smoke is in my shop and in my apartment and in a social situation if I know everyone there, and I know in advance that no one will object. Otherwise, I just leave my cigars home."

In Europe, of course, a cigar is still considered a legitimate postprandial pleasure--one of the "three C's" (along with coffee and Cognac). Robert Levin of Holt's Cigar Co. in Philadelphia told me recently about the satisfaction one of his customers took on his last trip to Paris when he lit up his cigar after dinner, and an American at the next table started to give him what he calls "the look" (which is almost as obnoxious as "the cough").

"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."

Not me, Herb.

I will never understand why anyone who smokes cigarettes throughout his, her or my dinner is then allowed to prevent me from smoking a cigar after we're all through with dinner. Sure, cheap cigars smell vile. And cigar smoke, even from a good cigar, can be dense and pungent. But surely one cigar, after everyone's through eating, is not as offensive as a half-dozen (or more) cigarettes while everyone is still eating. I think anyone who smokes cigarettes in a restaurant and then has the audacity to complain about a cigar should be punished by having to listen every night to a one-hour speech of George Bush trying to master English as a second language.

Fortunately, my experience at Dodgers Stadium notwithstanding, I haven't had as much trouble as most cigar smokers with such irrational complaints--or, for that matter, with complaints of any sort about my cigars. Unless my wife is sick or suffering from an allergy that clogs her sinuses, she doesn't object to my cigars in the house, for example, and I have only one close friend who has made clear that she doesn't want me to smoke in her house. (My sister won't let me smoke in her house either, but she lives more than 1,200 miles away so I don't see her often enough for that to be a serious problem--although I do vividly remember the first time I asked if I could light up, and she told me to smoke outside ... in Denver ... in winter ... when the temperature, as I recall, was about 16 degrees.)

Friendships and common sense have also helped make it easier for me than for many others to smoke in restaurants. Dining out is my hobby--some would say my obsession--so I've come to know a number of chefs and restaurateurs fairly well over the years; even the most brazen cigar haters often find it difficult to complain to you or to sic a waiter or maître d' on you when they've seen the chef or the owner stop by your table a half-dozen times to chat and ask what you think of dinner--or when the chef himself is sitting at your table, smoking a cigar with you, as chef Michel Richard often does with me at Citrus in Los Angeles. In fact, many restaurants that officially prohibit cigars will be flexible with good customers--or with any customer if it's late and the dining room is almost empty.

When I want to smoke a cigar in a restaurant, I try to be considerate. I don't smoke in small, crowded, poorly ventilated restaurants or in delis, pizza parlors, hamburger joints or other places not designed for lingering. I eat on the late side--8 or 8:30 p.m.--so that by the time I'm through eating and ready to smoke, virtually everyone else will also be through eating (and most will be on their way home). If anyone nearby looks as if he or she might object to my cigar--and such stern-faced, tight-lipped, beady-eyed folks are depressingly easy to spot--I ask if they mind. If anyone at an adjacent table is still eating when I'm through--or if the adjacent table is jammed up against mine, whether its occupants are still eating or not--I also ask if there's any objection to my cigar.

I've stopped smoking cigars at Dodgers Stadium because of all the complaints--complaints I just don't understand in an outdoor setting, where the smoke disperses so easily--but in restaurants and elsewhere, relatively few people have objected to my cigar. Even people who have objected have generally done so politely.


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