A thick cloud of smoke hung in the air at Havana’s annual cigar festival last week, where some 200 smokers took part in a novel contest to produce the longest unbroken ash.

Many of the participants, foreigners as well as Cubans, finished with throbbing headaches but smiling faces, laughing and clapping as their smoked-down stogies were transformed into prodigious pillars of ash.

Each smoker started out with a 17.8cm H Upmann label cigar, an esteemed Cuban brand. The challenge was to produce one intact ash as close as possible to the length of the cigar.

Contestants sat with heads tilted backwards to prevent the ash from crumbling. In between puffs, they held their stogies as close as possible to vertical.

“It was exhausting,” said April Angeloni from the US, whose impressive showing at 13.9cm, was nevertheless some 3cm too short to win.

The prize went to Olivia Terry, a Cuban journalist who puffed through 16.9cm before the ash broke.

It was the first time that the contest was held. It was the 16th annual gathering of cigar aficionados and merchants from around the world.

Some contestants had to quit, complaining of dizziness and nausea.

Tobacco is one of Cuba’s top exports, behind nickel and biotech products. Cigar sales were up 8 percent last year, at $447 million (R4.8 billion). – Sapa-AFP