Making a Big Stink

Meetings & Conventions: Making a Big Stink May 1998 Current Issue

Making a Big Stink


Just when I thought it was safe to breathe freely, the cigar makes a comeback

n the mid-1960s, the U.S. Surgeon General announced that there was scientific proof of what pretty much everyone who didn't make a living selling tobacco products had long suspected: Smoking cigarettes could be hazardous to your health. My mother reacted to this news by giving up cigarettes. My father reacted by giving up cigarettes and taking up cigars.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that he spent the next two decades of his waking life with an often-unlit stogie either clenched between his teeth or waiting patiently in a nearby ashtray. As a result, unlike so many of my boomer contemporaries, when I see a celebrity puffing away at a Macanudo on the cover of a glossy magazine, I don't think of manliness, wealth or power. Instead, I am reminded of the annoying smell of my dad's cigar during endless weekend drives to visit grandparents.

That annoying smell is cropping up just about everywhere these days. The hospitality industry, in particular, appears to be engaged in a wholesale rush to create upscale stogie-friendly environments. In Philadelphia, Holt's Cigar Club is an exclusive members-only joint that recently opened in the CoreStates Center, home of pro basketball's hapless '76ers and pro hockey's considerably more promising Flyers. Offering visitors the opportunity to smoke elbow to elbow with sports celebrities, Holt's sounds like a sedentary fantasy camp for athletic wannabees, a shameless shrine to the pleasures of testosterone overload.

Later this month, Vancouver, B.C.-based Rocky Mountaineer Railtours will offer travelers the opportunity to combine the joys of cigars with private train travel. The four-day, three-night tour follows a route from Vancouver to the Kananaskis Valley in the Canadian Rockies, just across the border in Alberta and a few miles south of Banff. So they may enjoy their puffing in peace, the cigar-lovers will have the exclusive use of the Rocky Mountaineer's new club car. And unlike their fellow smokers in Philly, they will be able to savor Cuban cigars, thanks to Canada's non-participation in the U.S. boycott of goods produced in one of the world's few remaining Marxist-Leninist states. The press release, however, stresses that this experience offers contemporary travelers a chance to sample the almost-forgotten pleasures that in the previous century only the grandest of capitalists could enjoy.

As if this were not enough (and it is for me), later this year, two Hyatt resorts in Florida and one in California will roll out an entertainment venue - part restaurant, nightclub and lounge - all inspired by the je ne sais quoi of George Hamilton, the minor actor with the major tan. At these various Hamiltons (as the places will be known), cigar-smoking will be a featured activity (along with eating, drinking and dancing). The pièces de rsistance will be $35, cognac-dipped stogies with the Hamilton family crest on their bands. For those who want to dress for excess, velvet smoking jackets will be for sale, starting at $250. Two non-hotel-based Hamiltons are already in operation, one in Las Vegas, the other in Pasadena, Calif. Although a Hyatt press release calls Hamilton "debonair" and refers to "his bon vivant image" and "passion for living well," the whole idea sounds more likely to have emerged from a Doonesbury cartoon than from the venerable hotel chain.

Indeed, the rebirth of the cigar as a fashionable accessory is one of those developments in which reality surpasses even the wildest of satiric scenarios. The appeal of stogies thoroughly eludes me. While I, despite the lack of any discernable talent, spent my childhood holding fast to the all-American fantasy of a professional sports career, I don't see how savoring a Havana can console me for my failure to make the major leagues. And, as a child of the '60s, I always sympathized with the downtrodden workers and not the robber barons and the other cigar-chomping members of the idle rich.

Maybe cigar smoking is just one of those human activities that simply defies explanation. As that noted stogie aficionado, Dr. Sigmund Freud, once remarked, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Still, the latest bulletin from the scientific front is less than reassuring. In March, epidemiologist Dr. Carlos Iribarren told an American Heart Association meeting of medical specialists that cigar smokers were twice as likely to die from cancer as non-smokers, but the audience already knew that. Where Dr. Iribarren broke new ground was in his discovery that cigar smokers also are twice as likely to die from certain types of heart disease, including high blood pressure and ruptured aortas, as non-smokers.

I hope it's just a matter of time before my peers come to their senses. Despite media-fed fantasies about what's debonair and who's a bon vivant, cigar smoking is more likely to be the key to dying young than living well.

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