To the horror of anti-smoking groups, First USA Bank has introduced the Cigar Platinum Visa card.

Worse still to the tobacco-phobes, the bank is giving free packs of cigars to everyone who signs up.

Cobranding is a practice that has had its ups and downs, but the alliance between Consolidated Cigar Corp. and First USA may represent one of the rare times when the controversy is over the product being promoted, not the business case behind the alliance.

Anti-smoking activists who learned of the new card-which is now being marketed by direct mail-expressed anger and outrage. One activist pointed out that some people boycott institutions that seem to condone smoking.

"I don't think First USA has taken into account that there are a lot of public health advocates who would refuse to do business with a bank that promotes an addictive and lethal product-which is exactly what cigars are," said Ahron Leichtman, executive director of Citizens for a Tobacco-Free Society in Cincinnati.

But First USA, a Wilmington, Del.-based subsidiary of Banc One Corp., does not seem daunted by critics of the weed.

"Cigars are synonymous with celebration, success, and achievement." said Tony Plohoros, a First USA spokesman. "What we are allowing people to do here is express to others when they use the card, that they enjoy that experience."

Mr. Plohoros said the card issuer was trying to capitalize on the cigar's newfound trendiness. In 1996, roughly 275 million premium cigars were purchased in the United States, up 67% from 1995, according to Consolidated Cigar Corp. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"We have seen an overall higher positive image of cigars portrayed in America over the years, and recently cigar popularity has exploded," Mr. Plohoros said.

But smoking foes do not view this trend as one to celebrate.

"This is a bank that is trying to capitalize on a cigar fad," said John F. Banzhaf 3d, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health in Washington. Mr. Banzhaf said he had seen studies suggesting "that the trend is about to break."

Jeffrey Baxter, principal of S.J. Baxter & Associates in Forest Hill, Md., came to the defense of First USA, saying that a card for premium cigar smokers was not the same thing as, say, a cigarette card.

"They are targeting the upscale cigar here, not the kind you buy in 7- Eleven," Mr. Baxter said. "I think it is an interesting move in a nice market."

Mr. Baxter said cigars were a "lifestyle" product. He said that more "yuppies, young businesspeople, women, and Hollywood celebrities" have been seen smoking cigars.

The Cigar Platinum Visa is available in three designs. The benefits of the card include discounts on cigar accessories-like humidors, cutters, and carrying cases-from several companies that purvey such things.

The card carries an introductory interest rate of 4.9% for five months. The rate then jumps to a fixed 13.99%. Balance transfers are free, and the credit line can rise as high as $100,000.

Richard DiMeola, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Consolidated Cigar, said he hoped the card would "truly enhance the cigar experience by allowing the cigar aficionado to make a statement of identity every time they use it."

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