Ammo & Gear Reviews

Cigar Hunter: Drew Estate’s Marvin Samel, the accidental not-really-a-lobbyist

The next prize giveaway will conclude on Monday, Oct. 22. Make sure you’re at least 18 years old and registered for the Cigar Hunter email list, and you could win a box of House Resolution by JC Newman cigars and a Thunderbird torch lighter from Corona Cigar Co.

Today’s photographic guest smoker: Right-hander Connie Marrero, now the oldest living former baseball player at 101 years old. A Cuban emigre, Marrero played for the Washington Senators. The Time Life photographer noted in 1951 that Marrero puts his cigar down “only while pitching.”

If you’ve never met Marvin Samel, you’ve missed out on one of the nicest, most thoughtful people in the cigar business. And if you’ve never smoked anything from Drew Estate, the company he co-founded in 1998 with his college roommate, you’re not much of a cigar nut.

In April, the Food and Drug Administration announced a tentative timetable for finalizing a list of new regulations covering premium cigars. The industry had introduced a bill on Congress to tie the FDA’s hands, but Samel was worried that they might be too late. (RELATED: A “House Resolution” to stymie the FDA)

So on April 25 he told the rest of his management team — and his fiancee — some strange news: He was going to pack up his things and move from Florida to Washington, D.C. for four months so he could pitch in, along with a team of other cigar bigwigs, to build a congressional majority around the idea of leaving cigars alone — or at least of clarifying the intent of the 2009 Tobacco Control Act.

It worked: At last count, 220 of the 435 House members have signed on, including such political opposites as Florida tea party Republican Allen West and New York Democrat Steve Israel, who runs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” Samel told me.

I caught up with him at the end of his four-month experiment as his stuff was being loaded from a rented townhouse into a moving truck for the ride home, and he paused to reflect on what the heck he had been thinking when he became an accidental not-really-a-lobbyist lobbyist.

“It’s been one of the most profound experiences of my life,” he said, while we lit up a few Liga Privada No. 9 cigars. He would have enjoyed the experience a lot more, he added, “if it wasn’t for the fact that every night I go to sleep scared shitless that our industry is going to be a relic of the past someday.”

Samel, of course, has a business to protect and 1,300 employees to pay — mostly in Central America. But peel back a few layers of the onion and you’ll find a broader-minded patriot with a libertarian streak.

“Look, I get it,” he said. “I understand that there’s a stigma attached to tobacco. But our products aren’t marketed to kids. They don’t have the same health risks. And cigars are smoked in a celebratory manner.”

Americans, he said, “have many choices to make. I’m not someone who eats fast food. But I don’t have the right to tell another human being, ‘You can’t.’ I don’t have that right, contrary to what [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg thinks. … The fact that Mayor Bloomberg is kidnapping our rights is atrocious to me.”

“As adults, I believe we should have the right to choose, while knowing what the risks are. You know what? Are we going to ban skydiving now?”