Good news: FDA probably going after cigars next

posted at 9:31 pm on March 25, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

So, cigarette smoking made you a pariah, but you still liked to have a little puff every now and then, maybe intermittently, socially, with a glass of scotch. You grew up, you switched to the occasional cigar. Sorry, you’re next, pariah!

Nearly four years after it began regulating cigarettes, the Food and Drug Administration is poised to extend its reach to a broader range of tobacco products. At the top of that list: cigars, which have experienced a boom in recent years even as cigarette sales have declined, in part because of growing popularity among young people.

Anti-tobacco advocates and industry representatives widely expect the agency to require changes in the marketing and manufacturing of cigars. But the central question remains: What kind of cigars will the FDA target, and how?

Wouldn’t it be fun to be a small business owner creating anything tasty or gratifying for ingestion and worrying about when exactly it might strike the fancy of the feds to go after you? What kind of ________ will the FDA target, and how? Predictably, premium cigars are turning on convenience store cigars to try to save themselves from the regulatory hammer. Yet another example of how the affluent seem to be able to get around annoying regulation while often regular folks and their preferred products tend to get the shaft.

On one end of the spectrum are the hand-rolled Cohibas and Arturo Fuentes that stock the humidors of high-end cigar shops and are favored by aficionados who don’t blink at paying top dollar. On the other are the convenience-store brands that appeal primarily to young smokers, such as 59-cent blueberry Swisher Sweets, peach-flavored White Owl Cigarillos, Phillies Blunts Sour Apple and menthol Cheyenne “little cigars” that are barely distinguishable from cigarettes.

Public health experts and some anti-tobacco lawmakers are pressing the FDA to regulate all cigars, but they mostly worry about the inexpensive, flavored varieties that have proliferated in recent years. Such cigars “are marketed aggressively and have resulted in high school kids and young adults being twice as likely as their older counterparts to be cigar smokers,” the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said in a recent report.

Meanwhile, makers of “premium cigars” have been lobbying intensely in an effort to avoid being lumped in with the candy- and fruit-flavored, corner-store varieties. A bill on Capitol Hill, co-sponsored by dozens of lawmakers, would keep carefully defined “traditional large and premium” cigars out of the FDA’s reach, although its prospects remain uncertain.

I don’t blame them for trying to save themselves. They’re acting perfectly rationally, but it’d be nice if they could all just compete in the open market instead of seeing who can lobby better for survival. The Cigar Association of America is taking a characteristically timid, wait-and-see approach for an industry about to get neutered and have its goodies handed back to it.

“All our products are different, so you should look at all of them differently,” said Craig Williamson, president of the cigar group.

Meet a cigar shop owner in Florida:

Carlos Navarro has rounded up a good size clientele at his Southside cigar shop called, Aromas. “We feel as a premium cigar market that our cigars are not intended for the teenage crowd,” he said.

Navarro explained how he thinks the government is going to be working against everything he, and other small shops owners, have built up. “It would hurt our business, it would destroy our business.”

Navarro and others in the industry are getting concerned because of all the talk of the Food and Drug Administration’s ideas on possible regulation in the near future, similar to the types of controls they have imposed on the cigarette industry.

The biggest actor in this space is Swisher International, which produces both flavored and premium cigars and employs thousands of Americans. If I had to guess how this turns out, the bigwigs at Swisher will have the clout to work a deal that allows their market in both kinds of cigars to remain relatively safe whereas small shops and start-ups won’t be able to take the heat of increased costs and diminished business. I hope that’s not the case. Maybe the FDA will just decide not to “extend its reach.”

Ha, let me guess your reaction to that last sentence.

Photo credit for front page to Brian Birke, Flickr.

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