Despite their cost, cigars catch on around campus

by Melanie Evans

Conveniently placed in front of the cash register at Dinkytown Liquor is the Bance’s Unique, a $2 cigar that is the store’s top seller.
For many customers, the lure of the Unique is irresistible. “It’s an impulse buy. People will buy one if they see one,” said Dinkytown Liquor employee Adam Kiesling. “They think, wouldn’t it be great to kick back with a cigar and a drink?”
Despite years of anti-tobacco lawsuits and strict statewide legislation, cigars are increasingly turning up in liquor stores, restaurants and bars across the state — and in the University community.
According to cigar industry estimates, cigar sales have doubled in the past two years, and more than 10 million Americans are now smoking cigars.
In Minneapolis, 11 Minneapolis restaurants have added in-house humidors — climate-controlled cigar cases — over the past five years. Within the last year, dozens of Minneapolis liquor stores and bars have integrated cigars into their inventory, with owners rushing to capitalize on increased consumer demand.
And since last June, the University has seen three tobacco shops open in Dinkytown and Stadium Village.
University liquor stores have followed suit, adding cigars to their inventories as a high-demand, high-profit item. Dinkytown Liquor and Valu Liquors both added cigars to their stock about six months ago.
Aggressive penalties and increased licensing fees do not appear to have deterred Minnesota’s cigar use.
Minnesota is a national leader in regulating and taxing tobacco products. The state’s 48-cent per pack cigarette tax is the 10th-highest in the nation; the state collected $176 million in revenues in the last fiscal year. All other tobacco products are taxed at 35 percent of their wholesale value.
The increase in cigar popularity has taken place despite increased tobacco licensing fees. The Minneapolis fee rose from $30 to $150 in 1995. Under current state law, cities can choose whether or not to license tobacco vendors.
But all that could change if a compromise is reached in a Senate-House conference committee on a bill that would make tobacco licensing a state issue instead.
Senate co-author Edward Oliver, R-Deephaven, said the bill’s original purpose was to keep cigarettes out of the hands of minors, not to discourage wholesale tobacco sales. However, he considers the cigar trend a cause for concern.
“All tobacco is unhealthy and expensive. There are huge health costs involved. … It doesn’t matter whether it’s a cigarette or a cigar.”
Currently there isn’t any legislation to raise the state excise tax on tobacco, a preferred form of legislation meant to deter tobacco sales. It has all been defeated or deleted, Oliver said.
Tobacco retailers and bar owners say mass-marketing and high-profile sponsors have much to do with why cigars are enjoying a revival.
Rich Lewis, owner of Lewis Tobacco in downtown Minneapolis, has worked in his family’s tobacco store since 1972.
The popularity of cigars is a trend, Lewis said — one he has seen coming at various trade shows over the past few years, he said.
“They are mass-merchandising cigars now … four years ago it was odd to see a model behind a booth at a cigar show. Now it’s odd if you don’t have one,” he said.
Lewis also attributes some of the popularity to the increased quality of cigars — “and because people like to smoke,” he adds, laughing.
“You’d think if they were going to have stopped it, they’d have done it by now,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ last argument resonates among store owners and legislators alike.
“Cigars are real hot. People are asking for them,” said Mark Roitenberg, co-owner of City Billiards, which has had an in-house humidor for about a year. The humidor has probably tripled City Billiard’s tobacco sales, Roitenberg said.
Proprietors aren’t leaving anything to chance, though, attracting clients with everything from monthly dinners for smokers to in-house humidors.
Surdyks employee Eric Challen began a cigar club in the Twin Cities about five years ago. With a customer base made up heavily of professionals ages 35-60, his club now contains about 650 members who meet monthly at a Twin Cities steakhouse for dinner.
Kevin Leisdon, cigar manager at the Liquor Depot, said they get many customers who don’t know what they want. “We get all sorts of people who want to try it, people whose friends are trying it,” Leisdon said.
Boynton Health Service doesn’t offer any information on the health risks for smoking cigars yet, said David Dorman, a health educator at Boynton. However, the University does offer a stop-smoking program and annually tracks campus tobacco use.
Patricia Post of the Minnesota Prevention Resources Center said she is aware of the recent upsurge in cigar use, yet the resource center hasn’t compiled anything targeted toward cigar smokers, she said.