In a flash of smoke and fire, Ernesto Carrizoza lights a cigar.
The 27-year-old sits in Anthony’s Cigar Emporium, 7866 N. Oracle Road, a tobacco merchant reminiscent of an English pub with lots of polished wood, leather sofas and wing-backed chairs, big-screen TVs and thousands upon thousands of cigars.
Carrizoza comes to the shop at least twice a week to enjoy the company and a smoke.
“Fifty percent of the time I run into the same people when I come in,” Carrizoza said as pungent tobacco smoke swirled around his head.
For regulars like Carrizoza, the cigar shop represents something of a home away from home, and one of the few places left in town where people can smoke openly and indoors.
Since May 2007, smoking has been banned at all bars, restaurants and workplaces in Arizona.
Tobacconists make up one of the few exceptions to the sweeping ban.
With the injunction, Arizona joined a growing number of states to place bans of one form or another on smoking in the public square. Today, 35 states have imposed similar bans.
Some bans were passed in state legislatures, which leaves the possibility for changes or amendments.
But in other states, like Arizona, the ban was put to a public vote, in effect a decision to change the state constitution. Changing the ballot measure would require another public vote.
The measure passed by a 57-percent majority.
“If it appears on the ballot it becomes the tyranny of the majority,” said Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America.
The Washington, D.C.-based group represents 62 manufacturers and equipment suppliers.
Ever the innovator, it was California that sparked the banning craze. The state’s 1994 ban was followed by a 1998 prohibition against lighting up in bars and restaurants.
If California’s trailblazing on smoking bans are any indication of things to come, the state recently made it a misdemeanor offense to smoke in car with a minor present.
Offenders can be slapped with a $100 fine.
But at the cigar shops, and a few cigar-friendly restaurants, smokers don’t have to hide in their homes to enjoy a quality cigar.
“We’ve got a wide array of customers from all walks of life,” said Tyler Klaar, general manager of Anthony’s.
The one thing most customers have in common, though, is a passion for cigars.
That love for the leaf renders the scene in a cigar shop a lot like that of a comic book or record store, with guys sitting around sharing smoking preferences and deliberating over all things tobacco.
Sometimes the conversation turns to the embargo, a loaded issue among many aficionados.
The 1962 executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy banned the importation of Cuban goods — most notably the island nation’s coveted cigars.
“The thing about Cubans, people want what they can’t have,” said Enrique Gonzalez, manager of Jerry’s Cigars.
He said that despite the mystique associated with the Cuban smoke, other Latin American countries produce comparable and even higher-quality cigars.
“Nicaraguan tobacco tends to be creamier,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez described the Nicaraguan blends as having hints of coffee and chocolate.
In fact, connoisseurs talk about a cigar’s flavor in much the same way as a wine lover does.
Terms like leather, wood, spice and even wine fill the cigar-lover’s lexicon. And like wine, there’s no limit to creative ways to describe a cigar’s taste.
“They talk about a cigar that has notes of aged Madagascar vanilla. Who knows what that tastes like?” asked Jeremy Bagwell, an employee at Anthony’s, while thumbing through a copy of Cigar Aficionado magazine.
At the cigar store, it’s often the employees with the most discerning and devoted smokers.
“As soon as this place opened I came in and started hanging out,” Klarr said.
That was 10 years ago, he’s been working there ever since.
Despite the nationwide trend toward smoking bans, in the mid-1990s, the country experienced a cigar renaissance. The resurgence is far from over.
“For a lot of people it was a fad, a little like a craze,” said Sharp, of the Cigar Association.
In 1994, for example, roughly 80 million premium hand-rolled cigars were sold in the U.S.
Sales spiked to 417 million premium stogies in 1997. But the dramatic increase created a demand that nearly brought the industry to its knees, according to Sharp.
“There’s only so much quality cigar leaf in the world,” Sharp said.
The 1990s boom caused shortages, rationing by distributors and a proliferation of cheap, blended tobacco masquerading as premium cigars.
Since the cigar-smoke filled days of the late 1990s, the industry has adjusted and many new premium producers have emerged.
Cigar sales have tapered off since that peak year in 1997, with volume hovering mostly in upper 200-million to 300-million range. In 2007, dealers sold 335 million cigars.
“You’ll find a greater collection of cigars now,” Sharp said.
For aficionados like Carrizoza, who smoke daily, the growing variety gives ample opportunity to experience the world of premium tobacco.
“I like to mix it up,” said Carrizoza.
Flying in the face of medical science, a recent story in the British press profiled a 100-year-old man who smokes and drinks with impunity and has done so most of his life.
The retired baker claims to have smoked nearly a million cigarettes and hundreds of thousands of cigars in his lifetime. He also enjoys a daily ration of whiskey with his morning tea.
The man said he lit his first smoke at the tender age of 9 and hasn’t looked back since. That was in 1917, during the First World War.
“If you do it right it’s a hobby, not a habit,” said Bagwell, of Anthony’s.
While the 100-year-old’s tale confounds the best available science, it’s the type of story cigar smokers like Carrizoza love to hear.
He smoked his first when he was 14.