Cuba’s state-owned tobacco company is wooing women, with their very own version of the famous Havana cigar - in spite of the well-known health risks of cigar smoking. But is cigar-smoking destined to remain a man’s world?
Hundreds of cigar distributors, businessmen and tobacco lovers are descending on Cuba this week for the annual Havana cigar festival.
The world of Habano smokers is predominantly male, but the island’s largest cigar manufacturer has now set its sights on the other half of the world’s population - women.
Last year, the company Habanos - an arm of Cubatabaco, the country’s national tobacco company - announced a mission to overcome perceptions among women that Cuban cigars are made up of “only strong tobacco for men”.
The result is the Julieta, a milder version of the renowned, strong-flavoured Romeo Y Julieta brand, which was founded in 1873.
Until now, cigars marketed specifically at women have tended to be flavoured or extremely mild cigarellos - a short, narrow cigar.
The Julieta is bigger, 4.75 inches (12cm) long, 0.5 inches (13mm) wide, and far more pungent.
But do women really want it?
Women have long association with cigar smoking - according to anthropologists, ancient Mayan women were just as likely as their menfolk to smoke dried tobacco.
But in modern times it has never really taken off - and with the rising awareness of the risks of smoking in general and global smoking bans, there is little evidence that it will.
In the 1930s, Marlene Dietrich was often photographed with a cigar hanging seductively from her lips. It is likely that she first took up cigars in 1920s Berlin, suggests CigarWoman.com, where women’s cigar-smoking clubs flourished.
“Cigar clubs back then served as both networking and social outlets for ‘progressive,’ ie, ‘renegade,’ women. Because cigars were still considered the property of men, female cigar clubs in the US sprang up in secret,” it writes.
And, in the mid-1990s, cigar smoking for women was given a glamorous boost by celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Jodie Foster, Demi Moore, Madonna, Drew Barrymore and model Linda Evangelista, who were pictured smoking cigars.
Magazine articles declared that women were just as likely to be holding business lunches as men and that celebrating this with a symbol of success - a cigar - was de rigueur.
“Fifteen years ago, the industry was in a boom - cigars for everyone was in vogue. There was no smoking ban,” says Lindsay M Heller, the only female tobacconist in New York.
“It was seen as cool, and it was not uncommon to see women joining their partners for a smoke. They thought it looked great. You saw female celebrities smoking cigars. But this is no longer the case. No-one wants to be caught promoting smoking.”
Apart from the short-lived 1990s trend, cigar smoking has remained largely a male domain in the US.
It’s taboo, says Ms Heller. “There is still a stigma associated with woman smoking cigars. It is rare in the States to see women smoking cigars outside. The ones who do smoke prefer the comfort of their homes and yards.”
Last year during the Winter Olympics in Canada, members of the women’s hockey team celebrated a gold medal with a cigar and beer - and were immediately embroiled in controversy.
One official at the IOC said it was not a good promotion of “sporting values”. Commentators sniffed double standards. Had it been a male team, they asked, would we have cared? Would we be griping if it were the boys sharing a celebratory smoke?
According to Ms Heller, there is still a “machismo factor” associated with cigar smoking.
“Women who smoke cigars are often teased, and they simply don’t want to hear it” she says.
But while few women smoke in public, anecdotally, Ms Heller says there is a significant number of women who enjoy the taste, aroma and cachet of premium cigars.
“We are smoking the same size and strength as those marketed at men. As a woman who has worked hard in the business, I find it an insult to be marketed to differently,” she says.
Gordon Mott, executive editor of Cigar Aficionado magazine, says that while cigar smoking is still predominantly a male pursuit, women make up a significant but “hidden” part of the market.
“Cigar Aficionado has a circulation of some 300,000, and we believe that about 5% of that is women,” he says.
“These are women who appreciate the complexity and flavour of the same cigars that men smoke.”
According to Habanos, women make up only 5-10% of their market - which does not include the US because of the trade embargo imposed against Cuba in 1962.
Maple, apple and cherry
But the research company Euromonitor International estimates that womens’ share of the market is a lot lower than that.
“There are no precise figures on the female market, but it’s not more than 1% of the total cigar-smoking market,” says tobacco analyst Don Hedley.
“In the US, there have been signs of a growing interest by women in cigars over the past few years, but it’s not amazing,” he says.
“What you are really talking about is women switching from cigarettes to flavoured cigarellos. They are big in the US market.”
In most countries cigar smoking is fundamentally associated with men, he says. It is countries where there is a gender neutral smoking culture where you see a higher number of women smoking cigars.
According to Mr Hedley, Denmark stands out as having a relatively high proportion of female cigar smokers.
“This is to do with the level of tradition and culture and how socially acceptable it is. It was very trendy in the 1990s for both genders to smoke cigars and there was no brand differentiation between men and women.”
In some countries, sales of cigars reflect the success of the economy there. For example, cigar smoking is growing fast in China. But, there is no evidence that women are a significant part of that trend, says Mr Hedley.
However, in Japan - where there are as yet no smoking bans - research suggests that some 10% of cigar smokers may be female. But they favour flavoured cigars, such as maple, apple and cherry.
‘Celebration of women’
There is no doubt that in some countries, a growing number of women and men are taking to cigars because they are seen as a status symbol, says Mr Hedley.
“In Brazil, there are a growing number of younger people turning to cigars. Woman are joining that trend because the are economically able to.”
Similarly, he says, research indicates that in South Africa, a growing number of women are smoking “for the excitement and novelty”. They belong to what is known as the “Black Diamond” market - high-earning, aspirational black South Africans.
According to Habanos, the new Julieta is also intended to celebrate the women who work in Cuba’s tobacco industry, at every step of the process.
But ironically, says Ms Heller, “The women who work in the industry smoke exactly the same cigars as the men.”
By Kathryn Westcott BBC News