Yet Somehow…

Russ Ouellette
It seems like only yesterday, at times, that I started out working in a tobacco shop,
yet it was actually 37 years ago. The landscape was much different then. Our focus was pipes and tobacco- nearly 75% of our business was pipe related. Premium cigars amounted to less than 10%, with machine made cigars being much stronger, and the balance was in accessories and the like. Through the end of the seventies and into the eighties there was a precipitous drop in pipe smoking, yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.

There were amazing blends available then that have disappeared from the scene. Among the late, lamented tobaccos: all of the Sobranie, John Cotton, Four Square, Elephant & Castle and Marcovitch lines have either vanished or have changed. One of my favorites, Bengal Slices, went through changes before vanishing entirely, sort of like extended death throes. Many brands died because there wasn’t enough of a market to make it commercially viable to continue. Others tried to maintain their product lines, but lack of availability of components caused radical changes that disappointed their customers and the blends withered on the vine. Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.

Our little hobby has been unfairly lumped in with cigarette smoking, and therefore has been demonized as a killer. Forget the findings of the original Surgeon General’s report that showed that pipe smokers lived marginally longer than non-smokers. I don’t mind some of the restrictions that have been placed on all types of smoking. I don’t think that lighting up in a hospital waiting room is a good idea, with sick people being forced to smell smoke, for example. I do get a little peeved, though, in those few restaurants and bars where smoking is still allowed, that I’m asked not to smoke my pipe or cigar while I have to smell stale cigarette smoke. In some places, you can’t even smoke under an overhang or canopy outdoors, because those shelters are considered to be an enclosure. There are lots of parks and open spaces where smoking in all forms is banned. And now, more restrictions are being placed on people in their own neighborhoods and homes. Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.

Usurious taxes abound in relation to tobacco. There’s a federal excise tax on all tobaccos products. Then the majority of states add their own tariffs, and there are even city taxes on some tobacco products. Additional fees are added by some manufacturers who signed onto the settlement agreement that pays a significant amount, annually, to states, supposedly to fund anti-smoking campaigns, but the money often goes elsewhere. For devotees of imported brands, another layer of cost is added due to import fees. Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.

Most of us smoke briar pipes. Harvesting briar isn’t an easy job. The burls grow underground and the heath trees grow in rocky soil and hillsides, making access dicey, at times. Finding people who want to do this kind of work can also be difficult, and when it’s hard to get people to do a job, the ones who will do the work expect better pay. When a market shrinks, the way that the pipe market had for so long, the cost of raw materials has to go up to allow the suppliers to survive. The finishing work, even on inexpensive pipes, requires skilled labor, and we all know that training and ability aren’t cheap to come by. Profit has to be made from the people who find the wood, to the mill that prepares it for market, to the manufacturer of the pipes, to the importer and the retailer. There are other considerations, such as shipping, that add to the cost, and all of this has to get passed on to you, the consumer, Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.

The specialty tobacco industry is much smaller than it used to be, yet the market demands new products, constantly. To some degree, this has weighed heavily on the brick and mortar tobacco shops. Even though their traffic is smaller than it was, the customer wants to choose from a broader selection of goods. Whether it’s pipe tobacco or cigars, variety is the name of the game, and it’s up to those of us who create and manufacture these items to meet demand. Some stores can’t, or refuse to keep up, and business suffers, maybe to the point of failure. Younger entrepreneurs look elsewhere for quick and easy profits, so there are fewer people to buy these concerns as the owners move toward retirement. Some stores who lease their properties find that the landlord doesn’t want to renew due to pressure from certain groups, insurance companies and the like, and in some states, the law doesn’t even allow smoking in a smokeshop. Yet somehow, pipe smoking survives.

Why does it survive? It does, in part, because we pipe smokers are a stubborn lot. This is part of our lives, and we’re not going to let go willingly, regardless of outside pressure. We enjoy it, and we feel that it adds to our quality of life. If the pressure is so great that our local stores are shuttered, we simply find another way to purchase the items we enjoy.

It survives because people recognize the relaxation and serenity that a pipe can bring. People looking to slow life down a bit are turning to our pastime as a way to accomplish this. The beauty of a well-made pipe is a, mostly, affordable way to bring artistry in our lives. If flavor is an important thing, eating out in fine restaurants can be costly, but even the most expensive tobaccos are a bargain in comparison.

It survives because some of the more tolerant people are willing to give us a pass, as they have fond memories that tie the aroma of pipe tobacco with a relative, or that kindly older gent who used to chat with them when they would walk past his house when they were children. Add to that the fact that the worst pipe tobacco smells better than the best cigarettes.

It also survives because we, predominantly, as a group are considerate and won’t light up at inappropriate times, unlike many cigarette smokers.

But more than anything else, it survives because we enjoy it, and refuse to give up something that makes life more tolerable in these crazy times. There’s a lot of gloom and doom being forecasted for our little hobby, but I don’t buy into it, because, well, we’ve survived to this point, and don’t plan to go anywhere.


Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.

See our interview with Russ Ouellette Here


29 Responses

  • Thanks for the enlightening article, it’s inteesting to see where we have been, where we are at right now, and where we are headed.

  • Thanks Russ. What we’ve been through is sad but I feel as you do we will carry on.
    I know it’s been said before but this is a “golden age” in pipedom.
    Carry on Gentlemen.
    Gabrieli Pipes

  • Thanks, great job! I love how you keep it in perspective and positive. Being on the forums and keeping up here, it makes me appreciate living in an area when we don’t have these crazy restrictive laws.

  • Interesting to hear from someone in the biz so long. I smoked a pipe during college because others in class (you could smoke in classes then) were less offended (in fact the girls liked the smell of pipe), but I had started with cigars in my teens, and smoked them exclusively after college…until in the 90s all of a sudden it became a yuppie fad and the cost of good cigars syrocketed to truly ridiculous levels. Today a 50g tin of premium tobacco costs less than one halfway decent cigar. Sure there’s the cost of the pipe(s) but carefully-chosen and maintained estate pipes are depreciation-proof for the most part.

  • Interesting insights, Russ. All good things will persist in the minds and hearts of men, at lng as they draw benefit or pleasure from it. The pressures come from those who do not draw the same benefits. Someone will always see a snake in the woodpile.
    Thanks for keeping the magic in the tobacco, my friend.

  • This is a lovely, sensitively-written article, neither banging the drum too selfishly for ‘our’ side nor damning the ‘opposition’ too heavily. You steer a careful course through the minefields that exist today. And, right on the nail, you state correctly that pipe smokers are a generally conscientious bunch of citizens who enjoy their hobby without imposing it on others. At the same time, the resurgence of this delightful pastime might give pause for thought to those who condemn all forms of smoking. I am not sure what the future is for smoking in general. I hear rumours of countries planning to ban it all together, in which case, where do we stand? I don’t know as yet. I hope I might be allowed to continue my pastime as I have done for the last twenty years. In the meantime, your article provides a welcome measure of sanity, careful argument and an invaluable framework of years of experience. Thank you, sir.

  • Well put, Russ. We ARE a stubborn lot and good for us. As a 40+ year pipe smoker I do miss some of the classics that went away but I also appreciate the art of today’s blenders who offer us so many quality blends. We shall persevere.

  • Great article Russ, thanks. I think as long as there are people who consider pipe smoking to be a lifestyle, then the pipe industry will survive. There will always be a segment of society who refuse to buckle to being told what to do. The more they try to take away our places to smoke and to tax our tobacco, the more determined we get. As said above we are a stubborn lot and we will not yield. I believe part of the resurgence is due to young people realizing that pipe smokers are a different lot and they like they idea of being a maverick and a bit outside societal norms.

  • Thank you for company on a walk down memory lane. As a survivor, I’d also thank you for providing more economical variety. I’m looking forward to H&H.

  • Pipe smoking it’s never going to disappear! There is always going to be some one who will enjoy the freedom that comes from being part of a different group and take time to relax and see the world from a different perspective… I enjoy being part of this, people coming and asking what I’m smoking and listening how the smell bring back memories of grandfathers or friends lost in time and above all enjoy the link that has created between me and my family because I know that when my children grow old they smell some one smoking pipe or when they decide to smoke a pipe as I do they will always think about me.

  • That article gave me chills. Among all you have listed, Russ, the bond between us men and women who share the pipe is one of the strongest I’ve seen in an hobby or past-time.

  • Great read Russ. The fight has to be harder that ever at this point, but with well spoken, educated folk like yourself, we should be just fine. Point smoking not only will, but MUST survive.

  • Thanks Russ this is a great read. The only thing that I can add is that in this day and age when they are slowly making Pot legal that we pipe smoker still have to be overly taxed and shunned.

  • jfox520- Your comment has made me wonder how long it will be before when someone who wants to be a smartalec will ask a pipe smoker- “So, do you smoke TOBACCO in that thing?”

  • Wow! What a great article! Proud to be part of the new generation that is keeping the flame alive. I’m so thankful to be accepted into such a warm community that is still thriving. Best wishes everyone!

  • Although pipe smoking has survived and even seen a resurgence in recent years I think it is only a matter of time before it takes a turn for the worse. There are a variety of factors that have contributed to the survival and recent rise in in pipes smokers – the cigar boom of the 90s and celebrity smokers, cigarette smokers looking for a safer alternative, cigar smokers looking to save money and try something new, a reaction against the horrifically hectic pace of modern life, the shedding of its grandfatherly image to counterculture coolness, etc.
    These things have occurred organically, but that’s not good enough. There is one big factor missing in all that…advertising/promotion. Retailers and producers remain too scared to actually recruit new smokers. It is this lingering and pervasive fear that will doom this cottage industry (and smoking, in general). The only way to combat the rising tide of onerous restrictions and taxation is to increase the number of people who feel harmed or aggrieved by them. Granted, there are restrictions on tobacco advertising, and some entities won’t even entertain a request for advertising. About the only tobacco advertising you see is Camel ads in Car and Driver. But until retailers and producers actually start advertising (both in print and in person) to show they’re proud of their products and businesses, AND suggest people smoke, we’ll eventually plateau, and then decline. When I see a Savinelli or ad in a regional or national context then I’ll have some optimism.

  • Thanks Russ for yet another outstanding read. I too think the hobby – err, lifestyle, dare I say religion (for me) – will persist well into the future. We current tobacco pipe smokers represent the historical legacy of a community of world pipe smokers, a community which, in the not too distant past, encompassed some 35% of the adult males in the United States. Lest it not be forgotten, these anonymous pipe smokers were our grandfathers, and allowed for the freedoms many of us enjoy today. Although far fewer in number today, we nevertheless still hold the candle to the memory of these men and the deeds they accomplished, with, of course, a pipe in hand.

  • Your fine article is political but every word and thought is said as an unassuming statement, not intended to make waves against the forces that besiege any type of smoking, anywhere. It is to raise the esprit de corps of all of us trying to fit a simple pleasure into a society grown vastly intolerant.
    As an example, I had my brother mail me some cigars, sending them from Chicago to North Carolina; it’s been three weeks since he sent them regular mail and they haven’t arrived. The Post Office informed me that tobacco must be mailed via Priority or one of their extra-fee services. They were good cigars, three, amounting to $40.00. I’m glad I didn’t lose more; I’d never heard of this.
    So yes Mr Ouelette’s article buoys my anti-tobacco beleagured senses, stating that pipe smoking has and will survive.