James Leavey's Corner
Montecristo Goes To Washington

FORCES - Link to James Leavey's Corner Main Page
by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey

The smoker-friendly Air France flight from Paris to Washington DC (there are none direct from London) cost an additional £31, and an extra three hours.

One of them was spent on a non-smoking plane from Heathrow, the other two at Charles de Gaulle Aerogare 2 where I sat in a cafe drinking Cote de Rhone, enjoying a Davidoff Grand Cru No.5 and watching the growing queue of uptight non-smokers.

While the plane was still climbing,I joined some of the hardened smokers who had already clambered up to the tiny, curtained, 'smoking lounge', next to the galley.

It held a maximum of 11 dedicated puffers, pipes and cigars were banned and Business Class passengers were forced downstairs to network with Economy.For the rest of the flight, all the food and drink is flavoured with tobacco smoke.

My friend, the photographer and former Swedish rock star, Jan Olofsson, and I had been invited to launch the American edition of our book, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London, at the first ever US Smokers' Rights Activists' Conference in Washington DC.

The world's first travel guide for smokers had already lit up the pages of Playboy, Time, International Herald Tribune and USA Today and the producer of the David Letterman Show had beckoned us across the Atlantic.Later I realised she was only using her middle finger so we never did get to meet Dave in New York.

5.15pm local time

We arrive at Dulles Airport and light up in the taxi queue.Our cabbie tells us 90 per cent of Washington's taxis are non-smoking, but 95 per cent of the drivers smoke, excluding him.

Jan and I restrain ourselves until we arrive at the Howard Johnson Hotel on Rhode Island Avenue.The first thing we see is a 'Please refrain from smoking' sign on the front desk.Fortunately, we have booked smoking rooms on the top floor.


Early morning stroll to Union Station.A US Marshall leans out of a Cadillac outside the FBI building and politely requests a light for his fag.After several magazine interviews at the Foreign Press Centre,Jan and I wander into the Amadeus Bar and ignite two Fox half coronas.

Moments later the chef comes out and asks if the building's on fire.Later we find a cabbie who lets us continue smoking our cigars in the back of his vehicle then make the mistake of exhaling at the same time, causing him to go through a red light.We promise not to do it again.

At 4.30pm we follow our noses to the Grand Ballroom at the Renaissance hotel for Cigar Aficionado magazine's 34th 'Big Smoke'.The third annual gathering of serious cigar lovers in the USA's capital is being held in two sessions due to the increased demand.

Cigar Aficionado was launched by Marvin R Shanken in 1992 and now sells 413,000 copies per issue and many believe the slick magazine's cigar chomping founder, publisher and editor is the New Messiah.

Today, the sainted Marv is walking around the stands with a halo of TV lights illuminating the top of his head, waving benevolently at 1,800 men and woman (average age, 37) who have each paid $150 for the chance of sampling 35 premium hand-rolled cigars, a little food and an array of fine booze while a rock band belts out: "I can't get no satisfaction".

Some of the men also buy replacement filters for their clean air systems; others ogle several luscious female models who are standing around simulating blow jobs on huge ring gauge Robustos.

Nobody seems to give a damn about the announcement from Liggett Group Inc, the smallest of the nation's major tobacco companies and the first to publicly admit that smoking causes cancer and other diseases, that nicotine is addictive and that the industry targets underage smokers.

But then tobacco is the USA's seventh largest cash crop and Federal, state and local governments collected over $13.5 billion alone in consumer excises on all tobacco products in 1995 so does anyone really want to rock the boat"

Pierre Joligard, an elegant Frenchman, walks past with two Cohiba Robustos in his mouth, looks at the open pack of Lucky Strikes on the table next to me and says: "I wouldn't smoke those, they're bad for you." He then generously hands me one of the Cohibas and chauffeurs us in his 1963 Buick Elesrta 225 to the Casbah club on 911 F Street, NW, where, in the early hours he demonstrates the art of fire-eating with 15 lit matches.

At 2.30am, just after Jan and I return to our hotel, five fire engines arrive outside, for no apparent reason.It doesn't seem like coincidence as we are also sharing the building with the US smokers' rights activists, one of whom is trying to assure the night porter he hasn't set fire to his room.


Wake up with a hangover and 237 cigars littering the spare bed. The air conditioning has been working overtime but the maid still refuses to clean my room until she can see it properly through the slowly dissipating fog of stale tobacco smoke.

That evening I enjoy my first real American hamburger at the smoker-friendly Dubliners Irish bar with an old friend from Cleveland, then it's off to Ozio's Martini and Cigar Lounge on 1835 K Street, NW.It turns out to be a swanky night club full of well-heeled Senators, Congressmen and attractive women, most of them smoking cigars and dancing to the pulsating Latin beat.The quietest place in the room is the walk-in humidor.

Over the next few hours I discover that while the flames and rights of America's estimated 75 million adult smokers are now being unceremonially snuffed out, many of its most virulent anti-smoking politicians and lobbyists in Washington DC are enjoying the biggest boom in cigar sales in the nation's history.

And they can afford the finest Havanas illegally imported into the country - at least one allegedly chewed if not inhaled in the White House by Bill Clinton - because the anti-smoking campaign is probably the most lucrative long-term career development opportunity in the capital.

Countless Federal agencies and tobacco departments have been set up and millions of dollars given away to any organisation that wants to jump on the PC bandwagon.I'm told one local lawyer was recently given over $1 million just to dream up more creative ways to sue the tobacco companies.

Meanwhile, cigar bars are blossoming across the States, except in California, which plans to ban smoking in all of its bars from next January.It's still acceptable to be seen in Haight Ashbury with a joint, provided you don't adulterate it with tobacco.On the East Coast, there are already several smoke-easies in New York.


The first day of the conference, attended by 30 representatives from smokers' rights groups in the USA, UK, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Japan and Korea.

A sheet of white paper announcing 'Conference in Progress'has been pinned on the reverse side of a large 'No Smoking' sign.It's next to the entrance to the meeting room which for two days is filled with smoke and invective against the new politically correct control terrorists.

Bob Speck, the representative from Honolulu, introduces himself and tells the room: "I don't like filter cigarettes, you have to work too hard to draw through them and my lungs aren't in that good a shape."He says he prefers to buy real tobacco from native Indian reservations, via the Internet.

We hear how a local High School overlooks the occasional lapses of its students who sometimes bring handguns to lessons (their parents can pick them up later, from the office) provided they are not seen smoking cigarettes.

And then there's the story of the Governor of Florida, who recently signed Draconian anti-smoking legislation while chewing a large plug of tobacco.The representatives from California are worried that if the Government continues to raise taxes on tobacco, cigarettes will soon be more expensive than crack.

Meanwhile, a couple of blocks north of the White House is a 'no go' area ruled by gangs of youths armed with automatic weapons. Apparently it's OK to walk around with a smoking gun, but not with a smoking cigarette.

That evening we all go out for Italian dinner at the Charing Cross bar/restaurant in Georgetown, where Jan and I set off the smoke alarm with the fumes of our Havanas.

Afterwards, we enjoy the impressive last set by Britain's leading male jazz vocalist and former smoker, Ian Shaw, at the Willard Hotel's classy Nest Lounge.


A casual stroll around the capital, lighting up Montecristo No.3s in front of the White House.Could that be Hilary Clinton peering behind the curtains, sniffing the air"


We join a group of smokers' rights activists as they hand in petitions to several senators. I'm amazed at the ease of access to the Senate ("They let any bum off the street in here," the security guard assured me), where we wandered around, smoking Havanas unchecked, and dropping our illegally imported Cuban ash in the large glass ashtrays that are a fixture of every senator's office, including Jesse Helms.

But then Washington DC is surrounded by tobacco fields and there are even tobacco plants carved into the stone inside the US Capitol building.


A final cigar in the smoking lounge at Dulles Airport before boarding the smoker-friendly Air France flight back to Paris - during which we weren't allowed to light up until after dinner.

TUESDAY, 10.25 am, Heathrow

Waiting in the luggage reclaim hall as the two representatives from FOREST dive into the toilet for a desperate cough and a drag.Three Air France flight crew members are about to light up their cigarettes when the tannoy announces: "Passengers are reminded that smoking is not allowed." Home sweet home.

Copyright James Leavey, 1997.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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