Cigar lovers, industry unite to snuff out FDA regulatory agenda

Cigar smokers are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it anymore. Faced with an unprecedented assault on their guilty pleasure from President Barack Obama’s Food and Drug Administration, aficionados and industry insiders told The Daily Caller that they’re picking up their torch lighters and revolting.

Usually divided by their preferences for mild, medium and full-bodied smokes, they’re uniting against regulations that threaten to make cigars prohibitively expensive, shut down scores of small cigar shops, jeopardize tens of thousands of jobs and erase the traditionally bright line between Camels and Cohibas.

Cigar lovers are also recruiting members of Congress to defend what public health activists and anti-cancer crusaders see as little more than gentrified cigarettes smoked by economic one-percenters.

“Only a couple weeks remain,” one apocalyptic online pitch warns, “to stop the FDA from ruining cigars.” If that seems like a stretch, don’t bother telling Famous Smoke Shop. The e-tailer has sent 1.7 million emails to customers on its mailing lists, asking them to encourage their representatives in Congress to co-sponsor legislation designed to tie the FDA’s hands.

Cigar industry representatives told TheDC that efforts like this have already generated more than 113,000 messages to Congress.

It’s no surprise, then, that 125 House members and four senators are on board. They include 26 Democrats, along with six of Congress’ 20 physicians and two of its seven nurses — all strange bedfellows for a pro-tobacco law in the making.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, announced Wednesday that she will join them. Landrieu chairs the Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship, a crucial position from which to influence an issue that affects mostly mom-and-pop retailers.

Cutting an Exception

The Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act of 2011 arrived in the House in April and the Senate in August. Much of the domestic cigar supply enters the United States in the Sunshine State, and two Florida legislators — Republican Rep. Bill Posey and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson — are leading the charge.

The bill’s focus is to carve out an exception for premium cigars in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009.

The Tobacco Control Act (TCA) gave the FDA new authority to regulate tobacco, and the agency has most famously wielded that power by requiring garish photographic warnings this year on cigarette packs. But the law, an FDA spokesperson told The Daily Caller in an email, “also permits FDA to deem other ‘tobacco products’ subject to the TCA’s general controls by regulation.”

The FDA spokesperson explained that a “proposed rule deeming cigars to be subject to FDA’s jurisdiction” could be “finalized” after a public-comment period expires, giving the agency the authority to regulate “any product that meets the definition of a ‘tobacco product’ under the TCA, including cigars, little cigars, and certain novel nicotine containing products (such as certain electronic cigarettes).”

The FDA seems to be taking its longer leash seriously. On three occasions since December 2010, the agency has already put the cigar industry on notice that it intends to propose a rule to “deem cigars subject to the Tobacco Control Act.”

The “non-face-to-face sale and distribution of tobacco products” is likely to be the first battleground. A Sept. 9 FDA announcement called for public comment on whether Internet and mail-order sales of tobacco — all varieties of tobacco — serve as a giant loophole for consumers under 18 who can’t legally buy it at retail counters.

A federal regulation banning long-distance sales of cigars could be finalized soon after December 8, the date when the FDA is scheduled to stop accepting public comments on that particular objective.