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Cigar shops, aficionados seek exemption from pending FDA regs

J. Arthur Bloom Deputy Editor
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New regulations pushed by the Food and Drug Administration could pose a new threat to cigar manufacturers and retailers. And some of them are banding together to push back.

When the FDA signaled its intent to “address public health concerns raised by cigars” in April 2010, cigar manufacturers, retailers and smokers been petitioning Congress for an exemption from the resulting regulatory burdens.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which President Obama signed in 2009, gave the FDA unprecedented power to regulate the production and marketing of tobacco. In addition to creating a large federal bureaucracy to enforce the new mandate, the law attempted to curtail tobacco advertising among the industry’s larger players.

But the regulations’ scope and breadth have brought with them unintended consequences for cigar makers and small tobacco retailers.

In response, two Florida GOP lawmakers, Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Bill Posey,have introduced legislation to exempt premium cigars from the FDA’s new tobacco-control measures. Nelson’s bill has just two co-sponsors, but Posey’s has 69 in the House.

In a press release, International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association CEO Bill Spann said putting cigars in a different category from cigarettes “will save thousands of small businesses, tens of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenues.”

Should the exemption fail, a statement from Cigar Rights of America warns, “nothing could rip the soul of the cigar industry apart, like FDA actions.”

That statement goes on to list hypothetical impacts of the FDA’s mandate — including bans on walk-in humidors, bans on “the very word cigar or tobacco,” manufacturer requirements to submit tobacco to the FDA for testing, and price hikes due to regulatory fees.

Predictably, the proposed exemption has anti-tobacco groups up in arms. A joint letter from 40 organizations including the American Heart Association, American Medical Association and National Physicians Alliance advised Congress not to “reverse course and exempt cigars, or certain types of cigars, from oversight.”

“We are particularly concerned about the wide range of products that would likely be exempted from any regulation under the bill,” the letter continues. “Including Swisher Sweets Sweet Chocolate Blunts, Phillies Sugarillos Cigarillos (described on the box as “when sweet isn’t enough!”), White Owl grape Blunts Xtra, and Optimo peach Blunts.”

But the IPCPRA contends the letter from the anti-smoking coalition “misstated the facts.”

Spann says the products listed in the anti-smoking advocates’ letter wouldn’t be covered by the new exemption since they don’t meet the definition of “premium” cigars. They’re wrapped in homogenized tobacco paper rather than tobacco leaves, don’t meet weight requirements, and often contain filters, he said.

“Perhaps they should take the time to actually read the bill,” Spann added.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius wrote in her introduction to a 2010 Surgeon General’s report, “Until we end tobacco use, more people will become addicted … Now is the time to fully implement proven and effective interventions … to help end this public health epidemic once and for all.”