Cigar Hunter: FDA stogie politics update, and some free cigars

David Martosko | Executive Editor

The next Cigar Hunter prize giveaway includes a box of House Resolution by JC Newman cigars from Corona Cigar Co., and a dual-guillotine cutter from Cigar Cutters By Jim — featuring the SEAL Team VI insignia. Want to win? Make sure you’re at least 18 years old and registered for the Cigar Hunter email list by Friday, October 5, 2012 at noon EDT.

Today’s photographic guest smoker: Detroit Tigers pitcher and 2011 American League Most Valuable Player Justin Verlander, pictured after beating the New York Yankees during the 2011 playoffs. 

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Ten months ago today I was putting the finishing touches on a feature-length article about cigar politics, my first real foray into what I thought was an odd little Capitol Hill tobacco skirmish. I had no idea what a long-running soap opera it would become.

At that point, I wrote, “125 House members and four senators … includ[ing] 26 Democrats, along with six of Congress’ 20 physicians and two of its seven nurses” were all on board with legislation to keep the Food and Drug Administration from regulating premium, hand-rolled cigars the way it controls cheap, machine-made cigarettes. (RELATED: Cigar lovers, industry unite to snuff out FDA regulatory agenda)

Here’s an update on those numbers: The House bill, H.R. 1639, now has 221 co-sponsors and the Senate Bill, S. 1461, has 14 senators’ names on it. Cigar Rights of America executive director Glynn Loope told me on Thursday that Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, Indiana Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly and Oregon Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader are the latest to hop on what’s becoming a crowded bandwagon.

Can you imagine a congressional bill with more than half the House members as co-sponsors, languishing in a committee somewhere? Welcome to Washington. I note, without any judgment whatsoever, that Majority Leader Harry Reid is the lone holdout from the entire Nevada congressional delegation. Nope. Not judging him at all.

The cigar industry has also put a petition on the Obama White House’s “We the People” section, asking the president to de-fang his FDA. The agency’s proposed regulations, it reads, “will jeopardize over 85,000 American jobs, destroy America’s ‘mom & pop’ premium cigar retailers & manufacturers, and risk over 250,000 jobs in Latin American that produce cigars, impacting the economic/political stability in the region.”

About 30,400 people have signed the petition, including 25,000 in the first 30 days it was available. That puts it in the class of proposals to which the White House has promised to respond.

Of the 34 open petitions on the White House website, the cigar proposal has the third most signatures. This seems to indicate that it’s been sitting on the administration’s back burner for an unusual length of time.

Cigar smokers have told me that aficionados are suddenly finding themselves united by the desire to see the federal government leave their passion alone. But no sea change like this happens by itself.

I had dinner last week in Washington with some of the movers and shakers who have lobbied their way to the neighborhood of common sense on this issue, including Loope, Bobby Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Company and Jeff Borysiewicz of Corona Cigar Co. Their coalition includes hundreds of companies, all putting their money where their customers’ mouths are. Good for them.

Borysiewicz and Newman have put their heads together on a unique product to promote the legislation, a “House Resolution” cigar that I reviewed in August. (RELATED: A ‘House Resolution’ to stymie the FDA)

You can smoke these on the house. Just sign up for the Cigar Hunter email list by Friday, Oct. 5 and you’ll be entered to win a box of 20 “Chairman” size (5″ x 56) cigars. We’re also including a gorgeous SEAL Team Six insignia cutter from Cigar Cutters By Jim. The winner must be 18 years old and provide proof of age.

To review: The FDA’s basic goal is to regulate cigars under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009. And erasing the historically bright line between Marlboros and Montecristos would change cigar smoking in the United States forever.

Personally, I’m in favor of a single safe-harbor warning to be posted in every cigar shop in America: “The Federal government has determined that smoking tobacco causes cancer in lab rats. Therefore, we refuse to sell cigars or tobacco to laboratory rats.”

According to a briefing handout on the Cigar Rights of America website, the FDA’s fondest-wish rulemaking would outlaw walk-in humidors and retail cabinets that customers could actually open on their own. Internet cigar sales would stop since you can’t “card” an 18-year-old online. It would ban some cigar advertisements and limit others to plain, black and white text.

The FDA notes on its website that a court order from a federal judge in Kentucky has the agency cooling its heels on the black-and-white advertising measure, even for cigarettes. But just this morning the FDA published some rough estimates in the Federal Register of how many hours it would take tobacco marketers to comply with the rule through “recordkeeping and disclosure.” So it’s not like the government is standing completely still.

The FDA also wants to approve all new tobacco blends, and we all know how slowly the wheels of government can grind. So as a practical matter, seasonal and vintage cigar blends would vanish.

This assumes tobacco producers would even want to keep making cigars for the U.S. market: The FDA would be able to regulate the amount of nicotine in premium stogies, and the only way to do that is to over-irrigate tobacco fields. Any farmer who does that would be diminishing the quality of his product for every cigar maker who buys it.

The FDA would also ban flavored premium cigars, which means Bill Clinton’s cognac-infused Gurkha Grand Reserve would be, literally, history. (RELATED: Cigar Hunter: On Bill Clinton’s big night, let’s smoke his big Gurkha)

The same goes for CAO’s “flavours” cigars, coffee-infused cigars like the Drew Estate “Tabak Especial” line and, probably, Drew Estate’s entire ACID brand.

You may not care about bellicosos infused with botanicals, and you might not mind tax hikes or saying goodbye to those colorful Tatuaje ads. But try to imagine the way we buy cigars in retail shops changing forever.

I noted last year that we could all be headed the way of Ontario, the Canadian province where you aren’t allowed to see cigars before you buy them.

Really.

“In Ontario, you’re given a list,” International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association CEO Bill Spann told me then, “and it says ‘type of cigar, size, price, country of origin.’ You point, [and] the guy goes back into a room that you cannot see.”

Ontario’s “tobacco display ban” has been in effect since early 2008, and a retailer guide spells out what’s forbidden.

“You CAN’T leave doors open that allow tobacco to be shown,” it instructs.

“You CAN’T show the tobacco to help someone choose.”

“Let them see a list or binder to choose which product they want.”

Good lord — can you imagine New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg taking it this far with soft drinks?

“Yes, ma’am, I know the paper cup with the jiggly fat photo on it only says ‘Pepsi’ in 12-point black Helvetica, but you’re just going to have to trust me. I’ll get the regulated sugared liquid from the secure refrigerator. Please have your ID ready.”

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