Cigar Sales Defy Smoking Bans and Rise in 2003

| By Gordon Mott , Marvin R. Shanken | From Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

Doesn't it feel as if cigar smokers have been beaten up in the last five years? After the exciting days of the cigar boom in the mid-1990s, we probably took our successes a bit too much for granted. As a result, the onslaught of smoking prohibitions across America hit us all very hard. Perhaps it's premature to put too much positive spin on some of the things that have been happening in the last six months. But if there's one thing we've learned, it's not to ignore the signs of a shift in cultural changes, even if they are small.

First, 2003 was the second consecutive year of growth in the U.S. cigar market. Imports of premium handmade cigars increased by 4.2 percent to 276 million cigars, after rising 5 percent in 2002. It's a clear sign that demand for cigars remains high. In a recent story, one tobacco grower said he was selling more tobacco now than he did during the boom. And several manufacturers have told us they are expanding production to meet demand.

Second, the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has created a smoking space near his office in Sacramento. OK, it's a patio. It's outdoors. But the space, which is legal, shows that some political leaders are not afraid to take a stand to accommodate cigar smokers. He's not allowing the extremely strict California antismoking laws to stop him from enjoying his passion for great cigars. It's a sign of his self-confidence.

Third, upstate bars and restaurants in New York are now eligible to win exemptions from the state's new antismoking law, implemented last July. They must prove through documentation of their revenues before and after the law that their businesses have been negatively affected. Downstate jurisdictions, including New York City and most of Long Island, have yet to allow any exemptions, but it's just a matter of time. The exemption process injects some sanity back into the smoking debate and begins to reestablish the same rules that worked for decades in New York through the existence of both smoking and nonsmoking sections in restaurants and bars.

We also noted in our last issue a piece of congressional legislation that had threatened to complicate mail-order business for cigars. Cigars were eliminated from that bill before it went to a vote. For now, cigar smokers across the nation will be able to use the U.S mail to get their cigars. Cigarmakers were also exempt from a law taxing domestic tobacco use because they didn't use enough U.S.-grown tobacco to justify the amounts of the tax.

Taken separately, none of these events would be hugely significant. But taken together, they provide some hope for a point that we've always tried to make: cigars are not equivalent to cigarettes, and they should be treated differently. It is being recognized that these sweeping antismoking regulations have actually deprived smokers of their rights. And lawmakers are beginning to realize that they can treat smokers fairly, without violating the rights of nonsmokers.

So, is the tide turning? It's too soon to tell. But there are certainly some hopeful signs on the horizon.