Happiness is a Cuban Cohiba for women who like a cigar

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The Independent Online

Otto von Bismarck considered them an essential diplomatic aid and Evelyn Waugh said: "The most futile and disastrous day seems well spent when it is reviewed through the fragrant smoke of a Havana cigar."

Given all this and the rather inglorious recent history of women and cigars - think Bill Clinton and the intern - it may be surprising to learn that for a growing number of British females, happiness really is found in a good cigar. Manufacturers, retailers and industry analysts say a small but rapidly growing number of women are choosing to indulge in a classier, more leisurely smoke.

Just over one in ten adults occasionally or regularly smokes a cigar, some 5.3 millionBritons. Almost 650,000 of these are said to be women, although they smoke far less often than men. Industry statistics show they accounted for 6.3 per cent of cigar sales last year, up more than half a percentage point in a year - with a far bigger jump expected for 2005. "We have seen a rise in women coming into the shop, particularly women buying cigars for themselves and not as presents for a man," said William Kutscher, of James J Fox & Co, cigar merchants in St James's, London. "They think it is a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes and there's a certain kudos to it."

He added: "Our female customers tend to smoke the panatella size; about £4 or £5, and they might smoke a couple a week." The sophisticated woman's choice, apparently, is a Cuban-made Cohiba, costing £8.

A spokesman for the Gallaher Group, manufacturer of Hamlet cigars, said there had been a "small but steady" rise in women buying cigars since 2000, and manufacturers hoped for a jump this year.

The trend is thought to result from the patronage of A-list celebrities such as Madonna, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kate Moss and Sadie Frost - and most recently Victoria Beckham, pictured puffing on the yacht of the fashion designer Roberto Cavalli - together with a feeling of "anything the guys can do ..." (Women have also caught up with men in the port-drinking stakes, according to supermarkets.)

Kat Hawk, a 22-year-old nurse from Nottingham, occasionally indulges during family card games. "I smoke when I go down to my uncle's," she said. "We play poker and have a few drinks, and the cigars are a bit of added fun."

Sally Toms, assistant editor of Cigar Buyer magazine, said health- and image-conscious young women fed the fad: "Cigarette smokers have got a bad reputation and cigars don't have so many chemicals and are glamorous... although they do have more tobacco."

Anti-smoking campaigners are, however, keen to emphasise that cigars are not a healthier alternative to cigarettes. Deborah Arnott, director of anti-smoking group Ash (Action on Smoking and Health) said: "Women may think they're less likely to get lung cancer but they have an equal chance to men. Smoking cigars can be just as harmful as cigarettes and even more so for former cigarette smokers, who often still inhale when they switch."

Paula Gordon, a 31-year-old events organiser from west London, found them no less addictive than cigarettes. "I perceived a difference between the two and so took to smoking a couple of cigars [a day]," she said. "But I started smoking more and had a 10-a-day habit, so properly quit."

Researchers at Oxford University found that the risk of premature death in cigar or pipe smokers was raised by 10 per cent, compared to 70 per cent for cigarette smokers. But two cigars a day doubles the risk of oral cancers and four a day increases it eightfold.

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