Old Havana restaurants quietly going smoke-free

Old Havana restaurants quietly going smoke-free
In this March 15, 2012 photo, Reinaldo Ruiz lights up his cigar at the Conde de Villanueva hotel, home to one of the city's most popular cigar rooms, in Havana, Cuba.
HAVANA (AP) - It's a quintessentially Cuban experience: Capping off a meal with a snifter of rum and an aromatic cigar.

This Caribbean nation is renowned around the world for its pungent Cohibas, Montecristos and Romeo y Julietas, but on the island, stogie-lovers are increasingly being told to take it outside.

A number of state-owned restaurants in Havana's picturesque colonial quarter have quietly gone smoke-free indoors in recent weeks as authorities there enforce a 2005 measure that has been almost universally flouted across the country.

The goal is to improve the culinary experience and safeguard the health of both diners and employees, but it's also raising eyebrows among cigar aficionados and cigarette smokers who say the right to light up is part of the tropical country's charm. Already, public smoking bans have spread to cities worldwide, from New York to Beijing.

"No-smoking areas? It's incredible!" said Michael Kuntze, a 59-year-old German day care manager who was savoring a long cigar and sipping rum and cola in the Hotel Conde de Villanueva, home to one of the city's most popular cigar rooms.

Kuntze and six other smokers from Hamburg were on a nine-day tobacco tour, sampling more than three cigars daily and selecting 50 each to bring home.

"That (no-smoking ordinances) is what we have in Europe, in Germany, but we don't want this here," he said, as aromatic smoke rose from the thick ash at the end of his stogie. "This is why we are here. Not to sit inside a small smoking lounge, no. Never."

Officials say the Conde de Villanueva, a favorite of cigar tourists like Kuntze, will continue to let guests and diners smoke.

At least nine state-run restaurants in the small, tourist-packed colonial area of Havana have banned smoking inside since the end of 2011, and more will do so in the near future, said Tannya Sibori, publicity manager for Habaguanex, the state-run business that administers tourist concerns in Old Havana.

Only sealed, air-conditioned dining rooms are affected, and Habaguanex restaurants all still have open-air spaces for smokers. There is no word on a ban for bars or nightclubs, and the owner of one of Havana's private restaurants said he had received no guidance on whether the "paladares" must follow suit.

Habaguanex officials described it as a bottom-up trend rather than an order from on high, but said it's possible there could be an official decree at some point.

"There is a campaign at the world level in which we should also take part, where we are helping to create healthier spaces even for the smokers themselves," Sibori said.

Diners are still welcome to enjoy their after-dinner cigar - just move to the outside tables, please, where you can people-watch on the quaint, cobblestone plazas and enjoy the balmy, tropical breeze.

"Cuba has an eternal summer, and you can take advantage of the terraces and exterior spaces," Sibori said.

Still, such a thought is anathema to some in Cuba.

The island has an ingrained tobacco culture and is proud of its world-famous cigar industry, which brought in $401 million in sales last year. When other goods were in scarce supply, cigarettes continued for years to be part of islanders' monthly ration books.

Even nonsmokers cherished the subsidized tobacco, which they sold on the black market or traded for other goods.

But Fidel Castro gave up his trademark Cohibas in 1985 on doctors' orders, and authorities have gently discouraged the vice.

Today, state-run radio airs public service announcements about the benefits of quitting, and cigarette packs carry health warnings. Cigarette dispensing machines have disappeared. Authorities began phasing out the tobacco ration in the 1990s and fully eliminated it in 2010.

Castro even joked about the ills of smoking cigars, saying "the best thing to do is give them to your enemy."

Still, government numbers say as many as four of every 10 Cubans smoke - though that's way down from estimates of 60 to 70 percent in the 1970s.

Cuba has had a resolution on the books since 2005 banning smoking in theaters, stores, buses, taxis, restaurants and other enclosed public areas.

But many are unaware of the law, and it's common to see people brazenly light up practically anywhere they theoretically shouldn't: offices, stairwells, elevators, buses, trains. Farmers rise early to tend their crops with cigars dangling from the lip, and even elderly women meander through crumbling city streets chomping on soggy cigar stubs.

"This is a country of smokers, a country with an important tobacco tradition," Sibori said. "Changing habits that form part of our roots is very difficult. I imagine that little by little things will be implemented so that this takes shape, but I still think there is much work to be done."

The Habaguanex initiative is also being carried out with zero fanfare, and no announcement in state-run media.

On a recent afternoon in El Mercurio cafe, tables were packed with French tourists chowing down on pork loin, rice, beans and fried plantains. Missing was the stale, smoky haze that used to hang over the tables.

Waiters said they appreciate going home at night in clothing that doesn't smell like an ashtray. Chefs take smoke breaks outside the back door without apparent complaint. There's still some clandestine indoor smoking at some places late at night when most clients are gone, however.

"Why not?" said Thomas Gabrisch, a Dusseldorf, Germany, music professor who was puffing on a slender cigarillo outside El Mercurio, when asked if he was OK with the indoor ban. "I think (smoking) bothers a lot of people. For me it would not be a problem ... But I think a lot of people would like to stay inside."

That sentiment was echoed by Dirk Brodersen, one of the aficionados from Hamburg, who said it was an adventure to be able to smoke the previous night at a basement music club.

"What is Cuba? Rum, cigars, sun and people," Brodersen said. "Cuban jazz without a cigar - not so good."