Cigar Aficionado

Freedom To Smoke In La Habana

I had just finished a memorable dinner at El Aljibe, the must-see Cuban restaurant specializing in savory roast chicken, black beans and rice, when the urge hit me—I really wanted a cigar. I reached into my shirt pocket for a Montecristo Petit Edmundo, removed it from its metal tube and clipped off its head. A few flicks of my lighter and the heady aroma of good Cuban tobacco began wafting around the dining room.

A waiter appeared at my side within moments—bearing an ashtray. He set it down without a word, and walked away.

This is the reception given cigar smokers in Havana, and for most cigar lovers from around the world, it's a completely foreign concept, or a vestige of an age long gone by.

Cuba is a cigar smoker's paradise, not only for the stocks of fine cigars found in the city but for the appreciation and respect given cigar smokers. I puffed away on that very same Petit Edmundo as I wrote this blog while sitting in the lobby of the Melia Cohiba Hotel. No one blinked at my smoke, and the busy lobby had at least five other men smoking away in peace as I wrote.

It wasn't always so. In 2005 Cuba, like far too many other countries, went through it's own non-smoking movement, banning smoking in certain places in February of that year. But unlike other smoking bans, this one seems to be largely ignored. On my Sunday through Friday trip to Cuba, the only places I encountered no smoking signs were in the main breakfast restaurant at the Melia Cohiba (and even I don't wish to smoke while eating breakfast, at least not on most occasions), elevators and in taxicabs.

But signs don't necessarily stop a person from smoking. I've lit up in most of the cabs I've travelled in here with not a single complaint, and I've taken my cigar into the elevator a couple dozen times. No one blinks. This is a city where you can smoke.

At dinner at El Aljibe, I noticed a variation on a very familiar sign. It was the familiar black-and-white image of a burning cigarette one sees in the United States, but this sign was missing one very important thing—the red circle and line. This wasn't a no-smoking sign, it was a smoking sign.

I followed the instructions accordingly—as I did everywhere in Havana. It's quite enjoyable to find a place where lighting up a fine cigar doesn't draw public outrage.

"Does anyone know when the Big Smoke cigar party will be in 2011 and where? I realize one just passed in Vegas, but is there a list of where these go on at, perhaps Vegas dates, New York, far as I know, we don't have anything like this in Canada..can anyone help? David or Gordon, any idea?" —December 15, 2010 15:38 PM
"hey guys,i invite u all to come to lebanon to smoke everywhere u want except the hospitals of course :)and u can buy ur cigars from la casa del habanos in the beyrouth aeoroport duty free and even in the town for the same prices of havana..." —December 15, 2010 05:38 AM
"I too have had the pleasure of an after dinner cigar at El Aljibe. I asked the waiter if it was permissible and he looked at me rather oddly a la Tony Montana, accent to boot . . . "c'mon buddy es Cuba mang". Oddly enough about 1 1/2 inches into the cigar George Hamilton (quite a gentleman) asked if he could join me and promptly pulled out a mystery cigar akin to the one nicely penned by Gordon a few posts back. One of those special moments combined with great cigars . . . es La Habana." —December 14, 2010 19:28 PM
"David: Although restaurants are not as friendly here, Las Vegas is very smoker friendly town. I feel very lucky to be able to sit in a nice bar have a great drink and smoke a great cigar. Without the looks. What a great trip you had, loved the reading. Maybe someday! " —December 14, 2010 17:17 PM
"I am not sure that I would be as "insensitive" in their city. I would assume I could smoke in places where thinking and caring people smoke, but more than a little hesitant to smoke in places where one should have some respect, dining areas, elevators, front desks, cabs...It may be Havana, but to me, it's better to act as if there were a low-grade smoking ban in place in a place, and get away with it in places where you should reasonably be allowed to smoke in Havana." —December 14, 2010 14:02 PM
"I definitely miss the old days when I could smoke in a restaurant or bar here in Pennsylvania. Very sad." —December 14, 2010 11:37 AM
"Thanks everyone for the comments. Taylor, very well put. You make me long for days gone by." —December 14, 2010 11:11 AM
"Sounds like you fellows had a great trip, nice to read. And yes, La Habana and Cuba is the place to be for all things cigar. Unlike Norteamericanos who either have to freeze in blizzards or are sequested away in basements, garages and the like. One recalls more urbane times (60's 70's) when one could have a pipe or a small cigar in between acts at the opera, or puff away an entire evening at a jazz club. Even the library had a collection/section for tobacco enjoyment, and it was not some hermetically sealed crypt tucked far and away. The floor-stand ash trays we cleaned regularly, nice green leather chairs, and the shoeshine fellow was just down the hall. One could even smoke while having a trim, a shave, and the barber was happy with the tip being a cigar. In many ways, missed days. " —December 13, 2010 22:51 PM
"In Malaysia, smoking laws and tobacco taxes are quite strict, however, there is still quite a lot of respect given to those who want to have a cigar, say after a meal, or during an outdoors smoking event. I think companies are given the leeway to decide for themselves where they wish to designate as smoking areas vs non-smoking areas, as long as they make sure there are both available. For example, in the Mandarin Oriental hotel (one of the best in Kuala Lumpur), you're allowed to smoke in the main lobby lounge, but in other hotels, you can't. The balance of freedoms for smokers is excellent here, and i'm thankful for that. If i don't want to breathe second hand smoke, i know there is a place for me and my family to sit, if i want to light one up, i know there will be a designated place for that as well. Fair's fair, right?" —December 13, 2010 22:16 PM
"Yes Simon, I didn't even get into the taxes, that's another blood boiler. One of those Cohiba Behikes is anywhere from $75-$90 for 1 stick. I would love to try one but I won't be paying that much, I'll wait for Cuba where I can get one for $20-$30. Even a Cohiba Robusto is $40.00. It's criminal if you ask me. The sad thing is that there isn't anything that we can do to reverse this there some way to get them to allow licensed cigar lounges...anything? Someway to have a dwelling deemed residential zoning that allows guest's perhaps to smoke cigars? Any idea's anyone??" —December 13, 2010 20:57 PM
"Justin - I echo your thoughts. The smoking ban is all over Canada (for the most part). Also I would like to add the bloody taxes the government added to cigar tobacco several years ago. Prices in this country are outrages!" —December 13, 2010 18:25 PM
"David, I couldn' agree more. It's so shamefull the way our Canada government has detroyed out freedoms of smoking. In Windsor, On, they are now talking about banning smoking in sports fields, outside! I read in our paper how a man was asked to leave an outside football game because he was enjoying an evening cigar. I get so outraged, my blood boils at this militant, dictatorship style of living. We can't smoke anywhere in Windsor anymore except in our backyards it seems. The casino is banned, all cigar shops, YES, cigar shops as well. You have to purchase your cigar, then go outside and smoke it, pathetic. Can't wait to go to Cuba in the new year and enjoy the freedom of cigar smoking. I've had it with our leaders, they are all disgraceful. I'll keep playing my 649 lottery so I can go to cuba more often! Maybe move there! " —December 13, 2010 18:20 PM
"Just another example if how some people "get it"! There are much more important issues going on in the world than to worry about how we are going to continue to control peoples lives through smoking bans!! I guess trying to control the "ants" is much more important than taming the "gorillas" in this jungle!!!" —December 13, 2010 17:13 PM