BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — At 10 p.m. on a late-summer Friday, it's "happy hour" at McCormick & Schmick's The Fish House on Rodeo Drive here. On the patio, a thirtysomething customer wants to buy a cigar. He summons Carlos Pineiro, the food and beverage manager, whose humidor contains cigars ranging from $5 to $18 each. After the man makes his selection, Mr. Pineiro threads his way across the patio to another table.
This routine is becoming more common across the country as more men, and some women, in their 20s and 30s light up cigars and sip scotch or bourbon - activities once regarded as the domain of older men. The Fish House has carried cigars and small-batch bourbon for 25 years, Pineiro says, but "it's only become trendy in the past couple years."
That "retro-chic" trendiness intrigues culture-watchers, delights tobacco and alcohol companies, and alarms health specialists, who worry that the glamorization of such products could undermine efforts to educate Americans about the dangers of drinking and smoking.
Despite antismoking laws, some restaurants, bars, hotels, and private clubs are setting aside "cigar-friendly" spaces. Some also host cigar dinners, "smoke-out nights," bourbon tastings, and "lounge nights" with cocktail music from the 1950s.
As a result, nearly 4 billion cigars were sold last year in the United States, adding up to more than $1 billion in retail sales, according to the Cigar Association of America. Five years ago, sales stood at $705 million. And although the per capita consumption of liquor has been declining since 1979, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, imports of scotch are beginning to rise.
Marketeers and sociologists offer varied explanations for this renewed popularity. "If it's a no-no, it's popular to the younger generation," says Barry Gregg, owner of Up In Smoke, a Los Angeles cigar store. His youngest customers, he says, are 21.
Echoing that "forbidden-fruit" theory is William Finnie, president of The Finnie Group, a marketing consulting firm in St. Louis. "Twenty-five years ago, people smoked marijuana as a sign of rebellion and independence," he says. "Today that is not acceptable. They want to do things that are not illegal but that demonstrate an independence and daring. It's like driving a fast car - it's something a little bit naughty, a little exciting, a little grown up."
Cigar smoking, Mr. Finnie continues, is "consistent with what's happened with hard liquor for the last 15 years. You don't drink a lot of liquor, but you have a fine scotch. Adults don't smoke cigarettes, but they'll smoke a fine cigar."
John St. Jarre, a thirtyish magazine editor in Los Angeles, stopped smoking cigarettes in the 1980s. "I got health-conscious," he says. But four months ago, he decided he "needed a new vice" and began smoking cigars.
To encourage younger consumers, producers of distilled spirits run ads in magazines and special promotions on college campuses, says George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. He explains, "The ads are trying to suggest that now that these young people are grown up, they're entitled to try a real drink."
John Hewitt, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, attributes part of the trend to conspicuous consumption. "Big fat stogies are expensive, just as the single-malt scotches are expensive," he says. "To purchase and consume those things is to show other people that you have the money to do it. There's also knowledge to be put on display and cultivated." Some aficionados, he adds, "are preening and posing and strutting for one another as much as for anyone else."
Professor Hewitt also offers another scenario. "Nowadays, people feel they can cultivate not just the display of status, but the display of self," he says. "As a modern, well-to-do yuppie I can become whatever I want to become. If I want to put on my $300 hand-tooled leather cowboy boots and my $200 Stetson and my cowboy shirt and designer jeans and look like an urban cowboy, I can do that. That's my faux cowboy self. If I live in Santa Fe, I can wear 13 tons of silver jewelry and cultivate my Santa Fe style. I can have these adornments of various kinds. In some ways cigars and scotch are adornments. It's a way of saying something about the self - but I'm not sure what it is."
Women, too, are joining the scotch-and-stogie crowd, as magazine covers show Madonna, Vanessa Williams, and Demi Moore with cigars. Says Dennis Rook, professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, "If you think of the images of businessmen from the 19th century that linger - guys with cigars and scotch - it's a symbol of women's achievement that they can have cigars and scotch now."
Owen McKeon, manager of The Humidor, a cigar cart in Boston's Prudential Center, estimates that about 8 percent of his customers are women buying for themselves. At The Fish House, Piniero calculates that women account for about 1 in 9 cigar customers.
In another cultural shift, cigars and liquor are making a comeback in movies. Michael Marsden, dean of the college of arts and sciences at Northern Michigan University in Marquette and a longtime student of popular culture, notes that in the 1940s, when smoking was common in films, it meant nothing for a character to smoke a cigar. Now, he says, "It means everything in the sense that it takes on a special kind of iconographic significance. The cigar becomes the symbol of the person who is in control and to some extent is a risk-taker."
Likewise, powerful characters "don't consume a glass of wine, they certainly don't drink beer," he adds. "The J.R. Ewings of the world drank hard liquor. Whenever they consummated a deal, they grabbed a scotch."
In real life, Dr. Marsden sees younger consumers of cigars and scotch "emulating those in control, the people in power, because those are symbols of success."
One member of that generation, Jay Richardson, is an investment consultant in Los Angeles who smokes an occasional cigar. "It's only a novelty for a big night when we get dressed up and go out on the town dancing," he says. "It's fun to act cool, but I don't really care for the smoke [or the] nicotine. I'm sure some people take it very seriously, though."
Mr. Richardson adds, "I just pay attention to what is cool with people my age and the 'higher-ups' in my industry, so I can network." At a recent client seminar, he says, "I played golf, smoked a good cigar, and drank martinis with the senior consultants and clients."
Whatever the appeal, health experts see a darker side to these habits. Although cigar smokers don't inhale, research still links cigars to some smoking-related diseases. Other studies find that alcohol remains a top health problem.
"There's no question that this is a health issue, given that drinking habits are usually formed earlier in life," Mr. Hacker says. Younger people, he adds, represent "virgin territory" for marketers. "If you get them early, their drinking habits are formed for the rest of their lives."
Yet while marketing campaigns for scotch and bourbon may target those in their 20s, he says, "that filters down in terms of potential attraction for underage students as well, because 19-year-olds and 18-year-olds read the same magazines and are caught up in the same marketing environment."
Hacker sees another potential problem in the wake of a recent television commercial for hard liquor. Print ads for liquor, he says, are "very psychedelic, with lots of color and bathing suits. Our concern is that these same ads, or their essence, could be transferred to TV."
In May, Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island introduced legislation that would limit the liquor industry's ability to target large numbers of young people through advertising. The Children's Protection From Alcohol Advertising Act of 1996 "would do for alcohol ads essentially what Food and Drug Administration regulations on tobacco advertising would do for kids," Hacker says.
"We're not going to tell the liquor industry they can't advertise," he adds. "But it's every bit as legitimate to want to spare our children inducements to drink as it is to want to spare them inducements to smoke."
Those inducements also take other forms. David Stewart, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, says, "All the empirical data suggest that certainly with respect to smoking, it's much more likely to be influenced by observing friends who smoke, parents who smoke. Hard liquor tends to be more an adult drink, but you often find consumption beginning in social settings."
Whatever the influence, some observers expect this "retro-chic" activity to go the way of all trends. "It will probably be short-lived, if it's not already at its peak," Richardson says.
Speaking of his cigars, Mr. St. Jarre says, "It's probably just a phase."
Professor Hewitt puts it this way: "These are fads. They come and they go. Who knows what will be next?"