Cigar-smoking in cities across America is enjoying a remarkable renaissance. Annual US sales of premium foreign-made cigars rose 30 per cent from 1989 to 1994. Some importers report demand last year was up by more than half. All this at a time when the cigarette industry is under relentless siege. Only last week, New York City effectively banned smoking in restaurants.
At the Cigar Bar on the east side of mid-town Manhattan, only a few blocks from the United Nations, Marc Perez, a buyer for Dunhill, attributes the new interest in cigars in part to a backlash against the healthy-living fad. "People today are deciding that if they want to have a martini or a cigar as an occasional vice, then that is OK and it's not really going to be harmful." The crowd in the Cigar Bar one evening last week offered a good snapshot of the new cigar set. These are mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings, all dressed as if on their way to the opera. The oak-panelled walls are lined with old books. Some guests are dabbling with pots of caviar and silver dishes of toast.
For the solemn, there is a separate smoking-room at the back that contains a humidor - a case of cigars for sale maintained at 73 per cent relative humidity. Inside are Montecristos, vintage Dunhills and - at $25 apiece - Cohibas. All are imported, but from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Honduras. Cuban cigars are embargoed. Raju Mirchandani, the co- owner of this and two other new Cigar Bars in Manhattan, says business is booming. "Cigars just seem to be becoming very, very popular." Mr Mirchandani says nearly a third of his cigar-toting customers are women.
Helping to drive the fashion are celebrities for whom a cigar has become an almost indispensable prop. They include the conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh, and the late-night talk show king and recent Oscar night host, David Letterman. Other cigar celebs include Sylvester Stallone, Ted Danson, Jack Nicholson and, among women, Whoopi Goldberg.
The glossy quarterly magazine for cigar enthusiasts, Cigar Aficianado, has a circulation of 185,000 and features advice on how to combat stale cigar breath and reviews of premium brands that read like wine appreciations. A top Dominican cigar was described as "a medium-bodied cigar with flavors of nuts, coffee and a solid cedar finish".
Two weeks ago, the magazine brought busloads of cigar smokers to Washington to light up on the mall opposite the White House for a "fume-fest" to demonstrate, according to its publisher, Marvin Shanken, that cigars are a "hot national trend".
Hot for those who can afford it. Aficionado reports that the new cigar smokers make on average $185,000 (£115,000) a year and are worth $1,540,000 each.