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Londons Threatened Cigar Bars Go Alfresco As Smoking Ban Nears

London's cigar aficionados, accustomed to smoking Cubans in plush leather chairs with a glass of port, are soon to be out in the cold.

The city's 20 cigar bars have to get creative or close after July 1, when the government bans smoking in England's offices and restaurants, including businesses that cater to smokers. Even the historic Claridge's hotel will be forced to stop patrons puffing at its horseshoe-shaped marble bar.

"Most people, particularly my well-heeled crowd, don't realize this is about to happen," said Ranald Macdonald, owner of Boisdale, a Scottish-themed restaurant and cigar bar. "This is going to be devastating to cigar bars and late-night, bohemian clubs in general."

Macdonald is building a roof terrace above his main bar in Belgravia, which offers 110 different sizes of Cubans in a custom-built humidor, to comply with an ordinance that's even stricter than New York's. Other bars are fitting ashtrays to outside walls and installing patio seating where warm drinks will be served to guard against the unpredictable English weather.

Boisdale has at least 5,000 repeat customers and 1,100 members, who enjoy benefits such as a 25 percent discount on cigars and free admission to live music nights. Each year, the members travel to Cuba for a cigar festival.

Every bit of space will be used to keep clients happy. The restaurant has the rights to the sidewalk outside its premises and will encourage customers to smoke there as well. The terrace will cost about 40,000 pounds ($79,496) and seat 30 people.

Smoking on the Roof

"If they do it well, then I don't see it being a problem," said Tony Roberts, 36, an equity trader at Cater Allen International in London, who has been smoking cigars for seven years and visits Boisdale about once a month. Smoking on the roof "wouldn't deter me, although it's not going to be quite what it was."

Second-hand cigar smoke may be more harmful than that from cigarettes because cigars release higher levels of toxins, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Still, cigar lovers may have a lower risk of developing lung cancer than cigarette smokers because most smoke only occasionally and don't inhale when puffing, the institute says.

Claridge's hasn't decided whether it will stop selling cigars altogether at its Macanudo Fumoir, which means "smoking room" in French, spokeswoman Gill Christophers said.

Park Your Cigar

Hunters & Frankau, the biggest importer of Havana cigars in the U.K., lost 60 percent of its orders from Scotland's bars, hotels and restaurants following the country's March 2006 smoking ban. Sales of Havanas, large, hand-rolled Cubans, have since recovered, with more orders from those who smoke at home, said Simon Chase, the company's marketing director.

The smoking prohibition will cost the tobacco industry 133 million pounds in lost revenue in its first year, with lost sales rising to 670 million pounds annually by 2009 as more people kick the habit, according to estimates by the London-based Tobacco Manufacturers' Association. Business owners who defy the ban face fines of up to 2,500 pounds.

"Cigar smoking is a different sort of a pastime to cigarettes, the idea of having to go outside on a wet November evening is frankly rather depressing," Chase said.

Chase invented the "cigar park," a play on the British term for parking lot. The large ashtray can be fitted to the outside wall of a bar or restaurant and has numbered spaces where customers can place their cigars when they need to go inside.

Bonus Boom

Cigar smoking became a popular London diversion in the 19th century, when so-called cigar divans proliferated for gentlemen of the upper class. Cigars bars enjoyed a comeback in late-1990s as a U.S. smoking boom migrated to the city's financial district.

"It was the most incredible period," said Robert Emery, director of JJ Fox & Robert Lewis Ltd., a cigar store on St. James's Street, which was founded in 1787 and patronized by Winston Churchill. Specialist tobacco shops such as JJ Fox that don't sell alcohol or food are exempt from the ban.

The average hand-rolled cigar takes about 30 minutes to smoke and costs 15 to 20 pounds. A larger Havana, measuring 9.25 inches, can cost as much as 50 pounds and take more than an hour to enjoy.

The government initially proposed a partial smoking ban that would have excluded private clubs. Parliament refused to endorse the loophole in February 2006 and instead backed a ban in most enclosed public places.

That move has led some cigar entrepreneurs to abandon the business altogether.

"We are dead," said Serguei Galkine, owner of Maxibond Cigar and Accessories in northwest London. After noting the success enjoyed by New York cigar bars, some of which were exempt from a 2003 smoking ban, Galkine applied for a liquor license and refitted his tobacco shop with a cigar bar.

"We thought that the law in the U.K. was not going to be tougher," Galkine said. "But it turned out that, again in this country, they've overdone it."

The store is on sale for 350,000 pounds.

Source: Bloomberg