CUMBERLAND, Ind. (AP) - Jerica Lowder and Samantha Rees tried their first cigars after a couple of Coronas - and some prodding from their husbands, who were smoking Cuban stogies at a party.
"We shocked the socks off of them," Lowder, 33, told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1cVlbq4 ). "The love began."
Now, the two women from Cumberland, a small town east of Indianapolis, smoke two or three cigars a month from their husbands' stashes.
"There is something rich, relaxing," Rees, 37, said. "It's just a soothing thing to do."
"Actually my husband and I love to smoke them together in the bathtub," Lowder said.
Cigar smoking conjures up manly images -- the velvet jacket, Hugh Hefner's Playboy clubs, Winston Churchill, Archie Bunker, Mark Twain. But Lowder and Rees are stay-at-home moms, petite women who work out and actually consider themselves "health nuts."
They're among a small, but growing percentage of women who are savoring the ritual of a cigar. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Demi Moore, Claudia Schiffer and Heidi Klum have been known to puff on stogies. Manufacturers are marketing flavors such as honey and mocha, and cigar bars and shops are designing experiences with women in mind.
About 2 percent of U.S. women say they smoke cigars, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that's about 3.2 million women. (In the 1980s, Cigar Aficionado reported, market research showed that women comprised only one-tenth of one percent of the total U.S. cigar market.)
Compare that to the percentage of men who smoke cigars - 9 percent - and women aren't really that far behind.
There are, of course, all levels of cigar-smoking women, from the ones who light up on special occasions to the routine puffers. The latter would be Barbara Munchel, who calls herself "a dedicated cigar smoker and cigar snob." She laments the ones "made for women."
"To me, those are non-cigars," she said. "The cherry, the vanilla, the honey-flavored cigars. That's not cigar smoking. I drink my coffee black and I want my cigars to be authentic."
Munchel is the owner of Cigar Haven in Fishers, a shop with more than 900 varieties. Among the most popular sellers are Blue Mountain, Kristoff and Toraño.
And while Munchel isn't seeing women pour into the shop, she does have some female regulars.
"Sadly for me, there are not as many women as I would like to see smoking cigars," she said.
Blend Cigar Bar, which opened in September on 82nd Street, was designed by a woman to appeal to a female clientele. The owners spent $250,000 on a scent system to keep the air well-ventilated. In the elegant lounge, women can order, for example, a chocolate martini paired with a chocolate truffle cigar.
The bar's owners are on the verge of signing the first woman to the exclusive $25,000-a-year club, which gathers in a private room behind a secret door.
That woman would be Martha Hoover, owner of a local food empire of nine restaurants that include Café Patachou eateries, Napolese pizzerias and Petit Chou bistros. She isn't a dedicated cigar smoker, but her husband is.
"I fully support it," she said, adding that at her daughter's 2012 wedding reception at the Oldfields-Lilly House and Gardens, she had a bourbon, bacon and cigar bar. "What Blend is doing is amazing."
Maybe if other women see that there is a female club member, Blend owner Corey Johnston surmises, they won't see it as taboo.
"Women do smoke cigars," he said. "They really enjoy them."
Lowder, one of the women from Cumberland, went so far as to call smoking a cigar "empowering."
"Living as a woman in a man's world," she said.
Nobody has to tell Nick Blum that. The owner of BlumLux, a luxury jewelry boutique in Broad Ripple, boasts personalized service that comes with a complimentary cocktail and, if the client wants, a cigar.
Have women been accepting that offer? Yes.
Proof came recently, when the boutique had its open house. Women, such as Kristina Skeens and Jenifer Snider, lit right up. They hung out with their male cigar-smoking counterparts and looked just as natural puffing away.
The trend doesn't come without potential dangers. Cigar smokers are at higher risk of facing the same medical issues that plague cigarette smokers - such as lung, mouth and throat cancer, strokes and heart problems.
The CDC points out that the cigars targeted at women may be even more threatening, because the flavors are a powerful mask.
"Fruit and candy-like flavors disguise the taste of the tobacco," it recently said in a study that went on to say that makes the cigars seems fun and harmless.
Daniel McQuiston, a marketing professor at Butler University, is not surprised that cigar manufacturers are courting female customers.
"A lot of companies in the so-called masculine marketing space - professional sports motorcycles, liquors, cigars - are discovering 'surprise, surprise' that women are a very huge part of their market," he said. "The idea is how do we make our products more feminine friendly?"
Avanti, a premier cigar manufacturer based in Pennsylvania, is selling its new cafe mocha Estilo cigar in three-pack pouches which "women like to slip into a purse or pocket," said spokeswoman Elaine Ferri. Avanti is also launching a new line of decorative tips for their cigars in February, as well as other accessories and new flavors.
"Women absolutely are a growing market in the cigar industry and they prefer flavored and small cigars," Ferri said.
These marketing efforts might even have a ripple effect on men.
"Marketers take note: Gorgeous females - especially famous ones - have always had power over men, and in some cases they're powerful enough to make us switch cigar brands," David Martosko executive editor at the DailyCaller.com, wrote recently.
And for those women who flinch at the still-overwhelming masculinity of the cigar-smoking culture?
"Let's not pretend here," Martosko said. "There's something sexy about beautiful women who like cigars. There just is."
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com