Neil Clark says cigar smokers are leading the fight for smoker’s rights

For British lovers of La Diva Nicotina, 1 July 2007 was a black day indeed. The government’s draconian ban on smoking in enclosed public places was a blow to all puffers, but perhaps for Britain’s 800,000 cigar smokers its impact has been worst of all.

Popping outside for a quick Marlboro Light on the pavement is one thing, smoking a Montecristo Especial No. 1 in such circumstances is something else altogether. Cigars are meant to be savoured, not rushed: something which the ban makes almost impossible outside of one’s own home. Gentlemen’s clubs have been badly hit. ‘The ban has completely changed club culture as the post-prandial smoke is no longer to be enjoyed. I think it makes it much more difficult to really get to know someone,’ bemoans Piers Russell-Cobb, managing director of Media Fund. For female cigar smokers, the situation is even worse. ‘In the past I’ve had to get used to the fact that some people see cigar smoking as unfeminine,’ says Sallyann Everett, a tobacconist. ‘Now, I’m worried that whenever I light a cigar I might be committing a crime. The ban has made me feel paranoid.’

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However, all is not lost. After a depressing four months in which smokers, in the words of Sallyann, have been made to feel ‘like third-class citizens’, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The fightback against New Labour’s particularly noxious brand of killjoy illiberalism is being led by the charismatic figure of Ranald Macdonald, elder son of the 24th Captain of Clanranald. Macdonald has worked tirelessly, over 19 years, to build his wonderfully cosy Belgravia club/restaurant Boisdale into an oasis for cigar smokers. Boisdale has the largest selection of Cuban cigars you’ll find in such an establishment (19 brands and over 120 different sizes and vintages). But the ban has hit business hard. ‘My sales were 15 per cent down in September,’ Macdonald told me over a Hoyo de Monterrey smoked on the little seated area outside his restaurant. ‘The evening trade has been badly affected. We have live jazz every night and jazz and cigars go together. You can listen to jazz without a cigar, but it’s somehow not quite the same.’

Macdonald’s assault is two-pronged. On 1 November, Boisdale opened Britain’s first cigar terrace, a 6 x 9 metre roof area, where patrons will, once again, be able to smoke their Havanas legally. At the same time, Macdonald, together with fellow cigar aficionado Jemma Freeman, managing director of Hunters & Frankau, Britain’s exclusive distributor for Cuban cigars, is launching a new single-purpose campaign to gain exemptions from the ban for bars, pubs and clubs. ‘Seventy-four per cent of the population in Scotland favour exemptions,’ says Macdonald. ‘It’s a question of convincing the politicians that such a move would have public support. The lie put out by the pro-ban lobby was that Britain was only following the European example in imposing a total ban. It wasn’t. Other countries have worked out compromise solutions.’ Macdonald prefers to use the phrase ‘bully state’ to describe the sort of country Britain has become: ‘nanny state sounds too middle-class’. ‘We’ve certainly become a lot less tolerant than we were 30 years ago. I’m afraid there are a lot more unhappy people out there who seem to derive pleasure in telling people what not to do.’

Jemma Freeman is also aggrieved that Britain did not follow the example of other countries. ‘I’ve just been to Spain and it’s so dismal to return home and not be able to enjoy a cigar while out with friends or colleagues. The ban is destroying the culture of bonhomie — I sometimes think the government doesn’t want people to meet up in public and would prefer it if we all stayed at home.’ Jemma is keen to stress that the battle for exemptions is not ‘an upper-class campaign’. ‘The ban has hit working men’s clubs hard too and it’s very sad that they are threatened. Many establishments spent thousands of pounds in installing air ventilation systems for smoking areas, yet Parliament still voted for a total ban. I can’t see why you and I can’t sit in a fully ventilated smoking room into which no staff would need to enter during service hours and smoke to our hearts’ content.’

Britain’s draconian ban is also causing cigar lovers from other countries to think twice about visiting the country. ‘If I’m not allowed to smoke, then I won’t come to Britain,’ says Swiss artist Tatjana Tiziana, who says cigar smoking aids the creative process. ‘Instead of banning smoking, the government would be better off doing more about climate change. It’s a far bigger danger to the world than cigar smoke.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated