Stogies for fogies? Puffing now upscale

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These days at yuppie watering holes, half-filled baseball parks and crowded city streets, clouds of cigar smoke hang in the air.

And the source of the fragrance (or the culprit behind the stench, depending on the bystander) is often a 25-to-35-year-old man--or woman.

This is not your grandfather's old stogie--and it's not his lifestyle, either.

"Cigars are being accepted again," said Bill Sherman, VP of Nat Sherman International, New York, a manufacturer and retailer of cigars. "Prior to 1991, the cigar industry was probably skewed toward more of a baby boomer-plus age group. Cigars always had the connotation of the grandfather sitting around smoking a cigar. Now, it's the grandchildren."

The Cigar Association of America reports a boom for premium cigars--sales of $29.2 million for the first five months of 1995, up 45.1% from the same period a year ago.

In 1994, 3.7 billion cigars were sold in the U.S., according to the cigar association, including 2.3 billion premium cigars, the first upswing after a 30-year free fall from 9 billion in '64.

The industry's consumer base, marketers say, has shifted to younger, upscale enthusiasts.

"The cigar is understood as something people can enjoy--not necessarily something to abuse but something they can partake of once a day," Mr. Sherman said.

"People are sick and tired of being good all the time," agreed Doug DeLieto, corporate communications specialist at U.S. Tobacco International. U.S. Tobacco markets the successful new Astral brand, whose campaign--by Y A Group, Weehawken, N.J.--targets men in their mid-30s.

"People want a vice once in a while," Mr. DeLieto said. And this vice--positioned among the most sumptuous of luxury goods yet only $2 to $30 each--carries special appeal for upscale novice smokers.

"The buying habits are changing," Mr. Sherman said of his family's retail outlet. "Younger guys are stopping in on Thursdays and Fridays to pick up cigars for the weekend, and groups of people are starting to enjoy a nice cigar after dinner, especially people . . . 25 and up."

Scratch that image of George and Milton chomping fat cigars; think Arnold and David--or Whoopi and Madonna.

Diana Silvius-Gits, owner of Chicago's Up Down Tobacco Shop, said the mass media's embrace of the cigar culture isn't the only factor in the rise of cigar smoking.

"Ten or 12 years ago, the cigar manufacturers moved into the Dominican Republic and the tobacco blends were really bad and inconsistent; but quality control is unbelievable now," she said.

Women are becoming a real force in the market as exclusive cigar-smoking events and societies gain prominence. A recent magazine ad for Sublimato Cigars Corp., created by October Fourth Associates, New York, depicts a cigar held by a woman's hand. Another ad, created in-house by Nat Sherman International, shows family member Michelle Sherman enjoying a cigar with 11 tuxedoed men.

One Chicago woman said her cigar-smoking days date to a "spur of the moment" decision on how to celebrate a 1994 college football victory.

"Since then, we've smoked them recreationally or on special occasions," said Maureen Stimming, 27, a private-school counselor.

Perhaps the strongest promoter of the changing cigar culture has been M. Shanken Communications' Cigar Aficionado. The upscale quarterly plans to put supermodel Linda Evangelista with her favorite stogie on the cover of its autumn edition, on newsstands the first week of September.

"We know the market is changing both from our own cigar-smoking events, attracting thousands of people, and from the letters we publish from younger men and women," said Niki Singer, senior VP.

But not all cigar marketers may be ready for the heightened interest. Havatampa has seen a boom in young adult consumption of its Phillies brand, to the embarrassment of Tony Barone, VP-chain accounts.

"The hip-hop generation honed in on Phillies, and things are going on with the brand that are detrimental to the industry," Mr. Barone said, referring to the brand's prominent unauthorized presence on T-shirts and in music videos.

"Phillies became the product of choice because of its wide distribution," he said. "But this is a very stodgy old company. We don't even advertise Phillies. We don't have any cartoon characters or billboards."

Perhaps such "negative publicity," as Mr. Barone termed it, makes marketers reluctant to try mainstream marketing in young men's and women's titles. "We don't rule out general consumer advertising," he said, "but I don't foresee it for a while."

Cigar-smoking women, estimated by some as 5% of the overall market, may soon be getting more attention from cigar marketers. Ms. Silvius-Gits placed a page ad, created in-house, in Cigar Aficionado for her own Diana Silvius brand, which she said is "the only cigar with a woman's name on it that's been successful for 20 years."

And Consolidated Cigar Corp. is developing prototypes of new sizes targeting women exclusively under existing brands.

"If we can find some niche marketing that appeals to women and we can do a test, we're open to that," said Richard DiMeola, chief financial officer at Consolidated. "Placing a $65,000 ad in Vanity Fair is not in the cards."

And while women's interest in cigars may be increasing, stogie smoking isn't yet de rigueur.

The activity is "really looked down upon at bars or restaurants, when it's even allowed," Ms. Stimming said. "And if my other women friends and I were smoking out at dinner, other patrons might find it odd."

Copyright August 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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