Untold risks in youth's new craze for cigars over shisha


Cigar Enthusiast Michael Okwach poses for a photo at Brick Cigars Kenya in Nairobi on October 12, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

A few years ago, cigars were a preserve of old, rich men seated on brown leather sofas, smoking in a room with dim lighting.

Then came the younger, impressionable men and women who graduated from shisha and cigarettes to cigars. But are they aware of the health risks?

The growing demand has fuelled an increase in cigar lounges in Kenya, with an estimated 15 spots now selling the sticks mostly imported from Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

One of them is the newly-opened Brick Cigars Lounge in Nairobi's Parklands. I find a group at the lounge's launch taking long puffs, holding in the smoke and as they exhale, they blow cloudy rings up the roof.

One of the guests is a middle-aged comedienne. She delicately picks up a Davidoff Signature No.1, rolls the seven-inch stick lightly between her fingers, grabs a cutter then lights a cedar spill and gently rotates the cigar through the flame as it slowly burns up the length of the strip.

She shyly says: "Smoking a fine cigar is a pleasure, not a vice. There’s something sensual about it. It says something about a man or a woman, don’t you think?” Everybody bursts into hearty laughter.

It is a cigar party of men and women in their late 20s and 30s and perhaps one or two people in their 50s and 60s.

The launch of Brick Cigars Lounge follows just months after the opening of yet another cigar lounge— the Humidor Code, signalling a shift where only high-end bars and restaurants with membership admission have such spaces.

“There were no exclusive cigar lounges. The cigar tribe was also a small niche family but it's getting bigger," says Boniface Mainge, who is in his mid-30s.

Bryan James, 29, says the cigar culture is gaining traction which is why there seems to be a steady rise in the lounges.

"You know Kenya hosts a good number of millionaires, young people included, and cigars are part of their life. The internet has also made cigars accessible for any willing person," he says.

A majority of young cigar smokers are moving from shisha or cigarettes.

“I had been smoking shisha until five years ago when I moved to something much more polite. I was influenced by movies and my friends. I have never smoked cigarettes,” Mr Maingi says.

His first stick was a full-body Cuban Cohiba, a gift from a friend and the next was a Montecristo.

“It is not a habit for me but a leisure activity. Once or twice a month, I show up at an exquisite joint, puff my cigar unplug, and then head home. It’s an expensive habit so I get to network with professionals or business people and make lasting connections," he adds.

His favourite cigars are Arturo Fuente from the Dominican Republic. A cigar stick ranges from Sh1,300: “I would love to visit their factory and see how they make them.”


Cigar Enthusiast Michael Okwach poses for a photo at Brick Cigars Kenya in Nairobi on October 12, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU| NMG

With coffee, wine or tea

The younger smokers have also changed the cigar rules. While older men paired cigars with whisky, the younger customers now pair it with Merlot wine. Others pair it with coffee.

“For me, coffee brings out the best notes when paired with cigars. I’m reserved about pairing with single malt whiskeys. Coffee also works well, to clean the palate and every other sip is almost a new experience,” says Bryan.

Eric Kobia, 29, says the best way to enjoy a cigar is by not pairing it with anything at all.

“I don’t drink a lot of alcohol. However, I would enjoy cigars with coffee, cocoa or English tea. But I enjoy not pairing it with anything to enjoy the flavour experience,” says Mr Kobia who used to smoke cigarettes but quit.

Unlike the times when Kenya had limited variety, now importers bring in more types, including sticks from famous farms in Nicaragua.

Bryan, who first tasted cigars six years ago, is among those who prefer Nicaragua cigars and Italian cigarillos.

“Finding my favourite cigar has been a journey. I first sampled some cigarillos before moving on to medium-full-body cigars. I’ve sampled coronas and Toro cigars all in equal measure until I arrived at my favourite piece Jaime Reserva Especial. It has a creamy, cocoa and wood aroma that just tastes exquisite. It’s a perfect cigar for all,” he says.

He adds: "A preference for beginners would be something mild and not too strong flavour-wise. Cigarillos would be ideal because of their size. They are smaller and wouldn't take long to finish one. Perfect cigarillos are like Toscano Raffinatos from Italy.”

Also for starters, it's important to understand that; “Cigar etiquette requires one to never inhale the smoke. The smoke after an inhale only rests in the mouth to savour the flavours and aromas of the specific tobacco leaf blends. Then release the smoke by mouth or retro-hale. It should never get into the lungs, ignore these and that’s how a beginner ends up choking and probably despising the cigar,” he says.

Health risks

But as the habit picks up fast among young Kenyans, some are unaware of the health risks.

Cigar smoking causes death from heart disease, a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association notes.

What is more, the smoke from cigars may be more toxic because of high concentrations of cancer-causing compounds which are produced during the leaf fermentation process.

Dr Peter Munyu, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Aga Khan University Hospital, said in a previous interview that there is a lot of misinformation about cigars and shisha; and it is deliberate so that people feel secure when smoking.

"Cigar smoking can cause lung cancer and heart disease. Tobacco use also increases the risk of infertility and getting a stillbirth child. Cigars are not a safe alternative to cigarettes," he said.

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