One Hollywood newcomer working on the set of a no-budget independent film in Los Angeles recently described this scene. "Everyone was smoking cigars," he said. "Grips, electricians, stunt co- ordinators, the director of photography, the assistant cameraman. If he was feeling generous, the producer would show up with a box of cigars. It was kind of bizarre."
Supermodel Claudia Schiffer is the latest famous face to grace the cover of Cigar Aficionado, the magazine credited with almost single-handedly creating the cigar fad. "I love the smell of a good cigar, the elegance, the feel," she confided to the magazine, following in the footsteps of Schwarzenegger and actress Demi Moore.
But California has long been on the cutting edge of anti-smoking campaigns. As evidence emerges of rising teen use a backlash is developing in the state over the ubiquitous images of celebrities and cigars, from Bruce Willis to Bill Cosby. Cigars are not the healthy alternative to cigarettes, critics say. Ten years ago California voters approved Proposition 99 to launch a media and schools campaign against cigarette use, and this autumn the state department of health will open a new front on cigars, sources say. In Los Angeles the Entertainment Industries Council, set up to act as a bridge to the public on social issues, is printing up new "depiction suggestions" on tobacco use, in particular cigars, for movie-makers. They will address "the myth that because you theoretically only puff, somehow there's less health hazard", said the council's Larry Deutchman.
Cigarettes turn up regularly as film props. Pint-sized aliens escaping Earth in Men in Black are seen toting boxes of duty-free Marlboros. Actors use cigarettes to establish characters as rebellious, neurotic, or reckless - Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, for example. But a recent survey showed that while three-quarters of films featured smoking, half of them included cigars. And cigars, complained Betty Turner, working with the American Lung Association in California, are "not only identified with being cool, but with the world going your way". Thus in the posters for The First Wives Club, though not in the film itself, Diane Keaton, Bette Midler, and Goldie Hawn share fat cigars, a symbol of women who have triumphed over cheating husbands.
In Independence Day, virtuoso pilot Will Smith carried cigars as his good luck charm, which attracted the wrath of Hillary Clinton, although she condemned smoking in general rather than cigar-puffers. This may have something to do with the fact that her husband Bill is occasionally seen with a stogie in his hand. He cannot light up in the office since Hillary banned smoking in the White House, but it is alleged that most of the time he simply chews on them. If he lights up, he certainly wouldn't think of inhaling.
It is the "power woman" image that most worries anti-smoking lobbyists, with cigar use soaring among professional women. They note Famke Janssen's act in Goldeneye, playing the cigar-toting sadistic hitwoman who crushes men with her thighs.
Sales of premium cigars in the US have exploded, but the 4.6 billion cigars sold last year still carry no health warning. Though they can cause mouth cancer, cigars only multiply users' chances of developing lung cancer by about three, it is reported, compared with 20 times for cigarettes. But some cigar stock holdings fell last month when the Wall Street Journal reported that public health advocates were targeting the trend.
Health-conscious San Francisco has already plunged in. Late last year the city health department launched an advertising campaign showing cigars being swept into a pooper-scooper. "They look like what they smell like," it urged. "Don't put them in your mouth."