Lip cancer be damned
You either love 'em or hate 'em. They smell like heaven -- modeled on Havana -- or like the armpit of the universe.
They are an acquired taste, or an instinctive distaste. They are "rich" and "spicy," or smokestacks and stink bombs. They make you mellow, or they make you puke.
"A cigar relaxes you," insists Stewart Colgate, a Lawrence importer who this month opened the Lawrence Cigar Co. at 900 N.H.
"In New York, Chicago and L.A., it's a fashion thing," says Colgate, 34. He smoked his first cigar on a fishing trip with his father when he was 12 -- to ward off mosquitoes. "I think around Lawrence we've always had cigar smokers."
That may be so, but after years on the decline their numbers are growing, and Colgate's shop is only one sign of that. The Bourgeois Pig, a smoker-friendly cafe and bar at 6 E. Ninth, attracts crowds of cigar smokers at its Monday night 1863 Club.
"It's all about decadence down here," says manager Brian Blankenship. "It's someplace to go where you can try to find some of the smaller, finer things in life, like a good martini and a good cigar."
In the last eight months cigar sales have skyrocketed at Louise's Downtown, a bar that caters to the college crowd at 1009 Mass. The cigars are sold upstairs, where young men and women wrap their lips around fat stogies -- which sell for anywhere from $2 to $10 -- often with a glass of single malt scotch.
Scotch sales and orders for traditional cocktails are also on the rise at Louise's.
"You relax, you have a cigar and you get a good scotch or a brandy or a good cocktail," says Matt Baum, a 23-year-old assistant manager at Louise's who has been smoking cigars for about three years.
"It's more of an event thing," he says. "You sit down and you relax and you've got a smoke that's nice. You're tasting it, and you should definitely have some kind of a cocktail with it."
A good health insurance plan is also recommended. Cigar and pipe smokers don't get as much lung cancer as cigarette smokers. But they have similar risks for cancer of the oral cavity, and heavy alcohol consumption enhances the risks of cancers of the mouth, larynx and esophagus.
"I don't think the public really cares about their health," Baum says.
This month's Spy magazine calls the cigar craze the most obnoxious fad of the decade.
"Screw 'em," Baum says. "I don't think it's obnoxious. It's a different kind of smell than cigarette smoke. It's usually really good quality tobacco."
Cigar smokers distinguish themselves from cigarette smokers. In their world, cigars are to cigarettes as Bordeaux is to Budweiser.
"I look at cigarette smokers as being weak addicts. They stink and their cars smell bad," says Lawrence manicurist and cigar smoker Christy Mara. "We cigar smokers are honorable."
Like cigarette smokers, cigar lovers don't dwell on the psychological implications or the sexual imagery of their oral obsessions.
"I think that's probably why my enthusiasm has been stifled a little bit," says Mara, 37, a regular at The Bourgeois Pig. "I feel so butch when I smoke a cigar. I tend to wear dresses. Once in a while a man will comment."
She says most cigar lovers -- both men and women -- quickly get past the fat phallus hanging out of their mouths and get into the subtleties of their cigars.
"I think that even with a big cigar if you handle it like you're enjoying it and like you know what you're doing, then it's not necessarily unfeminine," says Gretchen McFalls of Topeka, who started smoking cigars six months ago with encouragement from her husband.
McFalls, 42, also smokes cigarettes. She thinks of her cigars as a healthful break from her nicotine addiction.
"It's not really replacing my cigarette habit but it's helping me cut down a little bit," she says. "I've found it gives my lungs a break. Also, it's a different type of smoke than cigarettes.
"It took me a while to learn not to inhale. If you inhale a cigar, you really cough your lungs out."
She smokes about a pack of cigarettes a day and three cigars a week, usually with other cigar smokers in Lawrence or Topeka.
"It's a social thing to do," she says.
Like scotch drinkers and wine connoisseurs, cigar smokers prefer to revel in their lore and lingo. You've got to pick the right cigar for the right moment -- maybe a lighter colored "Claro" for a novice, or a dark brown or black "Maduro" for the smoker with a vengeance.
Fine cigars, aficionados insist, must be maintained at the proper humidity so they don't burn too hot or too fast. The Lawrence Cigar Co. has a walk-in humidor.
When it's time to smoke, you snip the end just so, and then you've got to know how to light your handmade, all natural, triple-layered pleasure shaft.
"Do not draw the unburned gases in," advises Mark Reumund, owner of Spa, Pool and Fireside at 1033 Vt. "That will give it a tart finish." He smokes three cigars a day.
"It's been a tradition in my family since my great-grandparents," says Reumund, 42, who took up the habit about six years ago after his father died and he found a bunch of his father's old Cuban cigar boxes.
The Cubans are considered the best, and millions are believed smuggled into the United States each year. But they're illegal, so those who can't or won't get their hands on the real thing settle for second-best cigars made in Honduras, the Dominican Republic or Nicaragua.
"The demand is well up over the supply, so it has become harder to find your favorite style or brand," Reumund says.
Colgate's favorites are $5 El Rey del Mundo "robustos," made from Cuban seed tobacco grown in Honduras and Nicaragua.
"They're pure pleasure," he says. "There's a nutty spiciness to it, not too harsh. It's a cigar you can smoke well past the band. The worst part about an El Rey is when you finally have to put it down in the ashtray. The greatest part is you get to light another one up."
Colgate recognizes that some people can't stand cigars and never will. But for those who do acquire the taste, he says cigars offer the common man -- and woman -- an affordable luxury.
"All of a sudden there's a generation out there now that's the first generation that will never make as much money as their parents," he says. "But the one thing they can have is they can sit down and have a great cigar and a single malt scotch right next to the guy who's worth $2 million."