'What is the point of health if you can't smoke?' Liesl Schillinger on the born-again American passion for cigarettes
THEY are smoking in Cafe Gitane, they are smoking in Cafe Figaro. They are smoking in Cafe Dante, Cafe Yaffa and Cafe Orlin, to say nothing of Stingy Lulu's and Max Fish. They are not smoking at McDonald's but that is because it is not permitted.

They are Americans in their twenties and thirties and they have confounded health pundits, parents and sociologists alike in their sudden enthusiastic and unpatriotic embrace of a habit that is not good for them. The age when Americans coughed in distaste when a party of visiting Euro-revellers lit up may be on the way out; goodbye Wrigley's, hello Lucky Strike. ``I suppose I have colds all the time,'' a full-lipped young houri conceded as she sat above her tartine and bowl of cafe au lait in Manhattan's West Village cafe Les Deux Gamins, wreathed in a blue-grey tobacco mist. ``But what's the point of health if you can't smoke?''

Smoking may be outlawed in Los Angeles, and there may be anti-smoking laws in five American states and a hundred American hamlets, but in most of the country, twentysomethings are taking to the fag in record numbers. They see themselves as ``social smokers'', not addicts, even when they inhale so deeply you can hear their lungs crackle.

The new smokers are partaking in a fin-d'American-siecle mood of abandon, glamour and self-destruction; and if they can't afford the silver fox furs, Jaguars, and Newport mansions, a packet of Camels remains well within reach. One study of 3,000 Yanks has it that 36 per cent of smokers are 25 to 34 years old, up from 28 per cent in 1993. In the last year, the number of 16 to 29-year-olds who thought they smoked too much went up from 21 to 30 per cent, and the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are now sounding the alarm, agitated by a marked increase in smoking among people in their twenties.

Joel Sherman says he knows what to tell the CDC. ``I'm not saying smoking is good for you, but it's certainly not the scourge of the earth that it's depicted to be,'' he says in a reasonable New Jersey-inflected voice. ``I think that in this country for too long there's been a group of people who are very unhappy and sorrowful, and their idea has been to bring everyone else down to their level of misery, and to prohibit and ban everything that brings other people enjoyment. Now, at last, people are finally seeing the extraordinary excesses of the anti-smoking zealots.'' Sherman has a vested interest in what he is saying, of course; he is the proprietor of Nat Sherman, Manhattan's poshest purveyor of cigarettes, cigars, tobacco and their appurtenances, and he is the son of the founder.

Walking through Nat Sherman's revolving oak and glass door on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street is a little like walking onto the set of ``To Have and Have Not'' (``You know how to smoke, don't you? Just put your lips together and blow.'') Once inside the shop, you are met by the sounds of a piano player, tiptoeing insinuatingly through ``Sophisticated Lady''. Glossy, wood-panelled walls are lined with shelves that proffer handrolled cigars of every thickness and length, laboriously grown and tended in Heart of Darkness-territory for Sherman's clientele. There are also stacks of long, slim cocktail cigarettes, gold-tipped with red, fuchsia, blue, green or yellow shafts; all-American cigarettes (in special packages, a colour assortment of red, white and blue) and the standard Sherman offerings, Light or Classic cigarettes, snugly tamped into artistic boxes.

``We tried to recapture the elegance of the Thirties with real feeling,'' Sherman explained as we sat in his upstairs office. On the wall was a framed letter from President Clinton, thanking Sherman for a gift box of cigars, and a photograph of the president, stogie in mouth. ``That was easy for me because my parents were part of that glamour that's depicted in Guys and Dolls,'' he said. ``They were real New Yorkers, my father and mother - straight out of Damon Runyon.

``What we're seeing today is a resurgence not of that type of people, but some of their nicest aspects. There's a return to enjoying the finer things in life. Tobacco is a passionate item. There's a great deal of romance to it.'' With sales of cigars up 35 per cent in the last two years, and sales of cigarettes, which account for a vastly greater proportion of the business, up 9 per cent. Sherman can afford much more than his share of the finer things these days.

``Think about it,'' he said beguilingly. ``There are very few great men and important leaders who have not been smokers. Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, JFK - even Clinton goes on to the roof of the White House to smoke. There are few men who attain great heights who do not smoke.'' He smiled and handed over a gift box of his guaranteed saltpetre-free glamour sticks. ``It's a lifestyle issue,'' he said. ``It's not how much you smoke, but how well.''

(Photograph omitted)