Guns and Gear

Cigar Hunter: Big guns visit Washington ‘Little Puff’ to talk Third World jobs, FDA, freedom

“We’re going to lose a lot of jobs [held by] people who need money,” Tatuaje Cigars owner Pete Johnson explained. “You never know what people are going to get into when they don’t have money.”

Many of Johnson’s cigars are rolled in Nicaragua. He understands what it’s like to live on society’s margins.

“You know, when I was a kid I used to steal a lot because I didn’t have a lot. … A lot of people count on what we do at those factories, on those farms. If they didn’t have those jobs, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Interview after interview, I got the sense that entire nations’ economies are linked to cigar tobacco.

“Directly and indirectly, between Honduras and Nicaragua, [we have] almost 1,500 or 1,600 people working for us,” Rocky Patel told me.

And if his business goes under, their steady employment vanishes.

“Well, they’ll be out of a job. And then next thing you know they’ll be trafficking cocaine and marijuana,” he said. “We already have a problem with the Mexican drug lords moving into Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala.”

“Look at [Nicaraguan] cities like Danlí and Estelí. Eighty percent of the population works in the cigar industry, whether it’s in the farms, in the curing, in the fermentation, in the factories. It’s very, very important. Eighty percent of them [the cigar workers] are single mothers, ’cause the men leave and they go to the cities looking for a job.

“We’re opening schools, we’re opening nurseries,” Patel said.

Litto Gomez, the La Flor Dominicana firebrand, said that unemployed Americans can “reinvent ourselves,” but for those in the Dominican Republic “there is not much to choose from.” (RELATED: Litto Gomez and the Rocky Mountain haircut)

He agreed that many, if not most, of his own employees would probably not find other legitimate jobs if an FDA regulatory spree were to shut him down or if new taxes should kill his sales. Some, he agreed, would turn to drug cartels or prostitution, “or they will be trying to … come into the United States illegally.”

“Or they will become communists,” he added, upping the ante. “Or there will be another [Hugo] Chavez in the Dominican Republic, and another Chavez in Nicaragua. There are a lot of consequences to this.”

More than 300,000 families in the Dominican Republic alone make their living from cigar tobacco, Gomez said. And federal regulators “don’t understand the consequences of what they do sometimes.”

“The anti-smoking movement, they want to get rid of all tobacco,” he told me. “And we are in with ‘all tobacco.’ … We are collateral damage.”

And that, said Jorge Padrón, adds up to “a serious threat — a very dangerous threat.”

“It’s putting this traditional business of making hand-made, quality products [at risk]. We’re in serious risk of losing this beautiful industry.”

I think he’s right.

Nobody really knows how heavy a hammer the federal government intends to swing in the direction of your humidor. But if you enjoy cigars, you might want to stock up this year.

“We’re going to lose not only cigars, but we’re going to lose a lot of freedom,” Gomez told me with more anger than sadness in his eyes. “If you look at this with a microscope, it’s about cigars. If you look at this as a macro thing, it’s the government overreaching its power.”

Two years ago, Gomez ran an expensive two-page ad in Cigar Aficionado that spelled out his personal anti-Nanny State philosophy. He never even mentioned his cigar brand. I absolutely loved it.

“As adults, we have the right to choose our lifestyle,” the ad read. “As I recall, it was called freedom, and that’s what makes America the best country in the world. If you don’t smoke and think that this does not concern you … think again, because one day, after they are done with cigars, a fat congressman while munching on his french fries will write a bill taxing your favorite food. We should not let them legislate our lifestyle.”

That lifestyle, Rocky Patel explained Friday night in his signature fast patter, is the exact opposite of what people in Washington, D.C. are accustomed to.

It’s about sitting down and slowing down. And it can appeal to just about everyone.

“That’s the beauty of a cigar,” Patel said. “In the day of Facebook and Twitter when nobody has a civil conversation, you can sit and relax, talk about life, sports, politics, and just actually slow down and enjoy.”

Enjoying a cigar “crosses party lines, crosses every socioeconomic line,” International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association CEO Bill Spann added.

“Cigars are like blue jeans: They’re just about the most democratic thing there is.”

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