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While vaping and cigarettes take hits, cigars thrive in Delaware

Ira Porter
Delaware News Journal

Corey M. Stansbury smokes eight cigars a day.

Eight.

"I eat, sleep, dream and breathe this culture," said Stansbury, owner of Sikar Lounge in Wilmington's Trolley Square and a vocal proponent of the trend.

And trend it is.

According to market research firm Statista, more than 13.6 billion cigars were sold in the U.S. in 2019 for more than $9.3 billion in revenue. After national sales of cigars slowed from 2012-2015 the numbers sold have climbed every year and are projected to hit 14 billion and $10 billion in revenue by 2023. 

Delaware's take isn't easy to tease out of those numbers, but the state has more than 1,200 retailers license to sell tobacco products. According to national non-profit truthinitiative.org Delaware received $154.7 million in taxes and settlements from tobacco sales in 2019, but can't say how much came from cigars.

Corey Stansbury keeps a cigar close as he punches in an order at his Sikar Lounge in Wilmington's Trolley Square.

While many fans such as Stansbury think smoking cigars is safer because they don't inhale the smoke, health experts say they're wrong. Smoking cigars has the same health risks as cigarettes, leading to cancers of the mouth and esophagus.

That hasn't slowed shops hoping to cash in on the growing popularity.

Omar Hargis opened E Squared Cigar Lounge 20 months ago on Kirkwood Highway near Marshallton. He was a vice president at a bank, but got sick of the corporate world, and wanted to earn money via one of his passions.

"I figured what better thing to do than find something that brings me joy?" said Hargis, 52.

He sells cigars as single units and his most popular sellers range from $8-12, but he has more some that are much more expensive. Visitors to his shop can smoke and sip cognac, wine or other top-shelf liquor.

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He believes vaping and cigarettes are loaded with chemicals that cigars don't have and therefore deserve every ounce of scrutiny they've gotten.

"Cigars are natural," Hargis said. 

"Cigar smoking is still smoking traditional tobacco," said Dr. Albert Rizzo, a pulmonary specialist and chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. 

The same cancer-producing substances exist because of the tobacco, Rizzo said, and because most cigars are much bigger than cigarettes, they carry more tobacco. One full-size cigar can carry as much tobacco as a pack of cigarettes, Rizzo said.

"I think they have been under the radar because there has been so much about vaping and e-cigarettes from a policy standpoint and regulation standpoint, but they have been in the mix a long time," he said. "They are not safer."

Andre Dillard smokes a cigar while working at the Sikar Lounge in Wilmington's Trolley Square.

Rizzo agreed that many cigar smokers often don't inhale smoke into their lungs, but he says the numbers who do are rising. Even if they don't, he pointed out, they still puff and keep the tobacco in the lining of their mouths or hold it in the cheeks before blowing it back out.

That puts them at a risk for lung, oral and esophageal cancers, Rizzo said.  

New fans

Those arguments don't sway fans, and some of the new fans aren't the people who might have once filled the hazy rooms of cigar smokers.

Hargis said the largest growing segment of his clientele are women, who represent 25 percent of sales.

Karen Hyatt is a regular.

Karen Hyatt lights the cigar that she purchased to smoke.

"The first time I came in here I was with a friend, but he had to leave early for a party, so I stayed," Hyatt said, walking from a life-sized humidor where she had just picked a light-bodied stick to light.

In cigar culture, cigars are mostly called sticks. They come in light, medium and full-bodied. Each shade indicates the amount of tobacco and nicotine in each, and also its potency. Bigger cigars have more nicotine, which is the addictive chemical.

A beginner smoking a full-bodied stick could get sick or dizzy. Smoking one loaded with nicotine at night might keep you up at bedtime.

"I saw a group of women sitting in the corner and they asked me over," said Hyatt, 49, of Wilmington. "We had so much fun laughing and talking about everything under the sun." 

She's been coming back ever since.

"This is a good way for me to relax," said Hyatt, a middle school special education teacher. "I can come in here, drink some good cognac, smoke a stick for an hour and decompress, then go back home."

Why Cigars Thrive

Stansbury was a former Brandywine School District special education teacher. The Delaware State University alumnus retired after 15 years of teaching. He worked in management at Sikar for seven of those years until he became the owner in January.

Donnae Park of New Castle lights up a cigar with an assist from Tamika Hagler of Newark at the Sikar Lounge in Wilmington's Trolley Square, where cigars are central to socializing.

"I think because cigars have a prestige about them people want to do it," Stansbury said. "Everyone wants to be in the lifestyle."

He was attracted the lifestyle from seeing older, well-dressed men smoke cigars. He watched how they made business deals, dressed in suits or tuxedos depending on the occasion, and sipped fine wine, champagne or cognac.

A tour inside Sikar, which sits near popular Trolley Square haunts, will leave a layman's nostrils filled with the scent from myriad cigars with flavors such as chocolate, cinnamon or mint.

E Squared Lounge Owner Omar Hargis talks with clients as Nik Everett puffs a light-bodied cigar.

Sikar boasts a membership of almost 100 people, who all pay $350 annually for discount pricing, personal lockers, drink specials and more. Leather chairs and big-screen televisions give visitors the option of catching up on sports. Non-members are welcome as well.

Stansbury's members and clientele include business owners as well as white- and blue-collar workers with disposable income. Each year, newly cemented doctors from St. Francis Hospital visit his lounge and smoke $55 single cigars and pay $175 for a three-ounce pour of Macallan 25, a single malt scotch.

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On a recent evening, Bill Whittaker, 62, of North Wilmington, and his two friends, Chris Marchak, 49, of Northeast, Maryland, and Nik Everett, 62, of Wilmington sipped liquor and smoked a few sticks at E Square.

Whittaker and Everett were childhood friends growing up in Wilmington. They met Marchak smoking cigars.

Bill Whittaker relaxes in a brown lounge chair talking and smoking a full-bodied cigar. Chris Marchak lounges on a couch while smoking.

"The bonding is what this is about," said Marchak, a business developer. "What we have here, you're going to come in, get a cigar and sit and talk with people of different races or creeds." 

He joked that his doctor recommended he smoke three to four medium-bodied cigars a week so relieve stress. 

Whittaker, a realtor, smokes up to four medium to full-bodied cigars daily. Everett smokes one or two a day and regularly visits E Squared and another shop in West Chester.

"It's a culture," Everett said. "They have apps you can put on your phone for when you go out of town. You can find a lounge and you go and find friends."

Not on legal radar

Lawmakers across the country saw the public health threat tobacco products posed and enacted laws to combat it in 2019.

Delaware was one of the first dozen states to raise the smoking age to 21, and President Trump followed by raising the federal age to 21.

Bands from smoked cigars collect under a glass tabletop at the Sikar Lounge in Wilmington's Trolley Square.

But vaping has gotten the most attention because of deaths tied to it. As of the first week in January 2020, the CDC said 57 people had died from lung diseased tied to vaping. One death occurred in Delaware.

There have been more than 2,600 hospitalizations related to vaping in 2019, the same report said.

Those numbers don't worry cigar fans.

Stansbury varies the power of the eight he smokes each day. Mornings, he smokes light cigars, which don't have as much nicotine and don't burn as long. During the afternoon hours, his taste grow stronger.

By the evening he's laid up in one of the plush leather chairs of his trolley square business, or home, smoking a deep brown, longer stick, which could take an hour or longer for him to finish.

Corey Stansbury relights a cigar while supervising a busy weekend night at his Sikar Lounge in Wilmington's Trolley Square.

"And I don't inhale," he said, referring to a reason he doesn't see a problem with smoking multiple cigars daily.

At 37, he already knows how he wants to die: Smoking a cigar. And he doesn't see why he can't live many more decades like his cigar heroes, Jose Padron and Arturo Fuente, two Cubans who started their own premium cigar companies still thriving long after their deaths.

Fuente, who founded his company in West Tampa in 1912 died at 85 in 1973.  Padron, who rolled cigars favored by billionaire New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, died in 2017 at 91.

"They say he lived a long life because of red wine and cigars. It gave him a lack of stress," said Stansbury, a certified retail tobacconist, which means he is an expert at all things tobacco.

Contact Ira Porter at 302-324-2581 or iporter@delawareonline.com