SIXTEEN YEAR OLD Nick Reed holds a cigar in the back yard of his suburban New York home. He cuts off the tip and ignites the end. Taking a puff, he tilts back his head and emits a swirl of smoke. The son of a doctor and a nurse, Reed admits to being curious about cigars. “I just wanted to figure out why people like this so much,” he says. Reed has been captivated by one of the 20th century’s great but shadowy marketing campaigns. At about the time he was born, cigar makers conceived a plan to save their dying industry by attracting new smokers—young adults and the wealthy. They simultaneously laid the foundation for a powerful myth: that cigars are not only cool and sexy, but also as harmless as afternoon tea. The same media that have relentlessly scrutinized the cigarette industry have embraced cigar smoking as a glamorous trend. And while there has been state level action in the United States, federal authorities have been so preoccupied with reining in the cigarette industry that cigars have slipped by relatively unscathed. Cigars often carry health warnings, but no U. S. surgeon general warning label is required. As a result, the billion-dollar cigar industry, which caters to an estimated ten million to 12 million U. S. smokers, has obscured a simple truth: cigars generally contain more tar and nicotine than cigarettes. Regular cigar smoking is indeed hazardous to your health. Meanwhile, cigars have been riding the crest of a boom. U.S. sales rose 52 percent, to more than five billion, from 1993 to 1997. Norman F. Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America (CAA), says this cigar boom “took everyone by surprise.” But an in-depth examination of internal industry documents and hundreds of interviews shows it was not exactly an accident.
“EARLY two decades ago cigar manufacturers were worried: U.S. sales had decreased about 40 percent since the mid’60s. With their survival at stake, industry chieftains in 1980 formed a committee under the umbrella of the CAA—a conglomeration of manufacturers, leaf dealers and suppliers—and convened in New York City. In his plan created for the CAA, public relations specialist Robert T. Henkel outlined the problem: “The image of the cigar industry has to do with smoke-filled rooms—traditionally cited as the areas where all sorts of nefarious schemes are hatched, where secretive conclaves, political machinations and other contemptible acts are devised.” Henkel’s solution: public relations messages disguised as news and entertainment. Stories would focus on cigars as a status symbol, associating them with women and celebrations and highlighting successful cigar smokers as “role models.” “How will we do all this?” Henkel asked. “We will write news stories, develop feature articles, take photographs, produce radio and television news tapes.” Success came in an impressive venue. A two minute script produced for the CAA was aired in a preview of the 1982 Super Bowl. “When it’s over,” a reporter said, “the victors will pass out the cigars that have come to be a symbol of manly success.” The industry calculated its cost savings. “A 30second TV commercial during the Super Bowl would have cost $400,000,” a memo noted. “However, multiple exposures through TV news features cost just $30,000.” Under the Richard Weiner, Inc., public relations agency, cigar makers targeted newspapers. In a June 7, 1984, letter to the New York Times, Jonathan M. Weisberg wrote: “I like to linger after a meal, enjoying a fine cigar as I would a special glass of wine. Unfortunately, increasing numbers of cigar smokers, fearful of confrontations with nonsmokers, think twice before lighting up.
This is regrettable.” The firm highlighted Weisberg’s letter in a report to the CAA: ‘Agency wrote and placed a ‘Letter to the Editor’ by Jonathan M. Weisberg, extolling the virtues of a postprandial cigar. Circulation: 963,400.” Women became a target audience to “help get cigars again accepted as part of elegant entertaining,” according to an industry memo. To attract wealthy customers, suggested a 1983 memo, “Create the ‘Cigar Smoking’ experience, similar to the `Wine’ experience—the tradition of the grower, the roller of cigars, the boxing, the care of cigars, the smoking of cigars.” Promotions were so successful that cigar makers were telling themselves that public sentiment was changing by the mid’80s: “There is a growing perception, regardless of the reality, that cigars are back,” said a 1985 CAA memo, “and that the momentum is in place for a better climate for our industry.” In 1986 the CAA took note when inaccurate but positive health information was published in the New York Daily News. “Owen Moritz reported that ‘Cigars are not a hazard to one’s health, according to the U.S. surgeon general,'” the memo stated. “This positive cigar story is `jackpot’ publicity. The Daily News has the largest circulation of any Sunday newspaper.” That same year a Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America was bestowed on the CAA for its campaign, “Shaping a Positive Consumer Image.” Cigar smoking in America was poised for a spectacular rebirth. The 1990s ushered in an almost surreal celebration of cigars: black tie cigar dinners, cigar bars, cigar cruises, cigar vending machines, cigar Web pages, cigar shaped Godiva chocolates and Cigar aficionado, a magazine that quickly gained in circulation and stature.
Everyone, it seemed, was lighting up: conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, pop singer Madonna, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, movie stars Demi Moore and Arnold Schwarzenegger, supermodel Claudia Schiffer. Meanwhile, the media continued to cast cigar smoking in a positive light. A recent database survey of newspaper and magazine coverage showed that articles on cigars rarely focused on the hazards. Most treated the cigar boom as a glamorous trend. “As a Prop for the ’90s, the Cigar Flourishes,” announced a New York Times headline on January 30, 1995. CIGAR MANUFACTURERS have also gotten help from Hollywood. Operating behind the scenes, one manufacturer has paid a Hollywood broker to get cigars featured in hit movies and TV shows—a type of stealth marketing known as product placement. The American Lung Association recently find that 99 of 250 movies it studied from the 1990s showed cigars. Consider the 1996 movie Independence Day: Aliens blow up the White House. The human race teeters on the brink of annihilation. But before hero Will Smith can save the world, he needs his cigar. The product appears in nine scenes, or about every 16 minutes. The exposure was a boon for the industry. Cigar makers could not have come up with a better promotion than the conversion of Ieif Goldblum, who played a computer genius.
Minutes into the ﬁlm, he scolds his cigar wielding father, saying, “Smoking is not healthy.” But by the time Goldblum engineers the planet’s rescue, he is savoring a cigar. “This is healthy?” his father asks. Goldblum retorts, “I could get used to it,” and takes a victorious puff. HE IMAGES on screen, critics contend, are swaying young—and underage—consumers to smoke. “It’s a very subliminal form of advertising, very powerful, and it has tremendous inﬂuence on kids,” says Stanton A. Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. From 1995 to 1998, according to Media mark Research, Inc., cigar usage among 18 to 24yearolds in the United States soared more than 200 percent, to 2.7 million. More alarming, in 1997 about three million secondary school students nationwide—22 percent—reported smoking a cigar in the previous month, a Centers for Disease Control survey found. Manufacturers want the public to believe that the proliferation of cigars on the silver screen is mere happenstance. “We don’t promote our products through movies,” says Stanford I. Newman, chairman of I. C. Newman Cigar Co. Company documents contradict him, however. On Iune 9, 1995, his son, president Eric M. Newman, wrote to Iay May, president of Feature This is a product placement ﬁrm: “I enjoyed speaking with you today regarding the possibility of our Cuesta Rey cigars receiving exposure in upcoming movies.” Four months later, Eric Newman’s administrative assistant wrote May, “Enclosed please ﬁnd the cigars to be used in speciﬁc movies which we discussed.”
For $27,000 in I996 General Cigar hired product placement ﬁrm Keppler Entertainment, Inc., which underscored the value of its work in a report to its client. A 30second TV spot would have cost General Cigar $450,000 during the popular show “Friends,” Keppler stated. But through product placement, the ﬁrm said, nearly 43 million viewers saw two of the show ’s stars, Courteney Cox and Matt LeBlanc, smoke cigars. Keppler also furnished cigars for “Baywatch,” “Mad About You,” “Spin City,” “Suddenly Susan” and “Third Rock From the Sun.” Last spring the CAA admonished its members to stop product placement in TV shows and movies, and General Cigar has terminated its contract with Keppler. IGARS MAY BE fashionable, but their smoke is packed with toxins. Within seconds of ignition, smoke ﬁlls the smoker’s mouth and throat, unleashing an estimated 4000 chemical compounds, at least nine of which cause cancer.
Contrary to popular belief, cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes. “It’s kind of like comparing poisonous snakes,” says Dr. H. Russell Wright, ]r., an otolaryngologist.
Overall, according to a recent study, long-term cigar smokers are twice as likely to die of cancer as those who never smoked cigars. Because cigars are generally less acidic than cigarettes, the body more readily accepts the nicotine without inhaling—and a premium cigar can contain 12 times as much nicotine as a ﬁltered cigarette. While studies are mixed, the U. S. National Cancier’Institute has concluded that for esophageal, laryngeal and other oral cancers, cigar smokers are at greater risk than nonsmokers. The rate of lung cancer among heavy cigar smokers, two to three times higher than among nonsmokers, is even higher among those who inhale. And the toxic compounds in cigars have other ways of attacking the body, passing through the lining of the mouth and throat and into the bloodstream. As far back as 1972, the American surgeon general declared that “for certain causes of death, pipe and cigar smokers experience mortality rates that are as great as or exceed those experienced by cigarette smokers.” And yet, cigars have barely registered on the regulatory radar screen in the U. S. Only now is the Federal Trade Commission looking into whether cigars should carry a federal health warning label. Meanwhile, the Health and Human Services inspector general’s ofﬁce is examining state laws regulating tobacco and how kids perceive the health consequences of smoking. Says Donald Shop land, head of the Smoking and Tobacco Control Program for the National Cancer Institute, “People should be warned.”