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Smoking rogue

Despite known health risks, some still flock to cigar culture

  • Michael Bliss smokes a cigar at Iwan Ries cigar shop.
Michael Bliss smokes a cigar at Iwan Ries cigar shop. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
February 19, 2012|By Mick Swasko, RedEye

Two years ago, Michael Bliss had just finished climbing the highest peak in the Caribbean islands when he decided to do something else he'd never done.

"Coming off that with dehydration, malnutrition and tearing a few ligaments in my foot, I said, 'Hey why not do something fun?'" he said of his decision to try his first cigar. Now, the 29-year-old Pullman resident estimates, he puffs about three stogies a week, frequenting tobacco shops all over the city in search of a good smoke.

For Bliss and other cigar fans, the image of a room of old men sitting around blowing smoke is obsolete. Cigar smoking among teen and young adult males is notable of late, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. Eleven percent of 18- to 25-year-olds say they've had a cigar in the past month, compared with the average of 5 percent of all age groups. And despite known health risks, looming tobacco tax increases, potential regulation and sometimes unhappy spouses and strangers, they still puff away.

"Yes, it's a generally accepted fact that smoking is bad for you. But we're not babies, we're not children," said Justine Kavanaugh, a 24-year-old Roscoe Village resident who took up smoking cigars after managing a shop for five years. "You know full well what you're doing, and if you're a responsible adult you should be able to make that choice."

Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said the attitude that cigars are a safe smoking alternative isn't true. Cigar smoking increases the chance of mouth cancer and raises the risk of heart disease. And it can lead to addiction despite not inhaling, he said, as nicotine in cigars still is absorbed through the gums and mouth cavity.

"People do in fact smoke cigars differently, but certainly not without serious health risks," he said.

Kavanaugh said she's faced naysayers who have told her the habit is gross and unhealthy, as well as customers who dismissed her expertise on cigars because she is a woman. Though she hated cigar smoke when she was younger, Kavanaugh said it has become part of her adult life.

"Pretty much everyone, if they sat back and thought about it, could think of something they do that is not necessarily beneficial for them healthwise," she said.

Despite criticism, smokers such as Bliss say there's more to the culture than just blowing smoke.

"It brings together a lot of different people who you otherwise wouldn't meet in normal life," he said.

Bliss said he knows there is a stigma around cigar smoking, and his wife doesn't like it. But what some may see as a vice has for Bliss led to several other endeavors, such as making humidors by hand.

With the climb in cigar use among 18- to 25-year-olds—as noted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration's 2010 survey—further regulation could be on the way. Legislation passed last year gave the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over cigars, and while the FDA has yet to exert any restrictions or rules, McGoldrick said they are being examined.

This year cigar smokers will face a bigger financial burden. Taxes for loose cigar tobacco and cigars themselves go up in March.

Connie Boone, who manages Blue Havana tobacco shop in Lakeview, said despite the taboo that increased regulation and a health-conscious society have created for cigar smokers, he's still seen an increase in the younger crowd visiting his shop.

"Every 10 years or so there is rejuvenation within the cigar community," he said, adding that he thinks younger smokers are interested in the sense of nostalgia from smoking cigars, remembering their father or older relative who also used to smoke them.

The idea of cigars as a symbol of achievement is what brought Ryan Warner, a 20-year-old UIC student, to try cigars for the first time. He said growing up and watching Michael Jordan with a celebratory cigar after a championship made him curious.

"You kind of see it as something to aspire to almost; it's about luxury," he said.

He said while many people keep in touch via Facebook or texting, sitting and smoking cigars produces real, in-person conversation. It was that notion that led him to found the university's Cigar Club two years ago.

"That's really what our group symbolizes," he said. "We're all busy [and] we have different majors, jobs, responsibilities, but we all come together every Friday and sit down and talk no matter what. If we didn't have the club, we wouldn't talk as much."

Despite criticisms of the ritual, Bliss still enjoys having a smoke. He said he doesn't think his hobby has turned habitual, but the things that come with it may have, in his opinion.

"If philosophy, relaxation and conversation are a habit, then I guess so," he said.

mswasko@tribune.com | @mickswasko

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