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Cigar Hunter: A ‘House Resolution’ to stymie the FDA

David Martosko Executive Editor
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Last November I wrote a lengthy feature about the Food and Drug Administration’s plans to make premium, hand-rolled cigars subject to a list of regulations that currently cover cigarettes. Judging from the response, The Daily Caller struck a nerve. Nine months later, the federal government’s nanny-culture machine is still marching forward.

What’s changed, however, is the degree to which cigar manufacturers, retailers and consumers have pushed back. (RELATED: Cigar lovers, industry unite to snuff out FDA regulatory agenda)

Here’s a short recap: The FDA wants to ban the sale of cigars over the Internet or in any other fashion that’s not face-to-face. The agency’s rationale, as I explained in a speech last weekend, is that 15-year-olds are spending $15 of their disposable income on Cohibas and it’s impossible to “card” them online.

I know. Sheer idiocy.

The FDA also wants to put garish diseased-lung warnings on every cigar box, 5-pack, cellophane — you name it. And the proposed regulations would add a new tax (or ten) as well.

Now the push back: Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Rep. Bill Posey, both from Florida, have legislation pending that would exempt hand-rolled premium cigars from whatever the FDA does. The twin bills use a weight formula to determine which smokes are beyond FDA’s reach.

The term “traditional large and premium cigar,” the bill says, “(i) means any roll of tobacco that is wrapped in leaf tobacco, contains no filter, and weighs at least 6 pounds per 1,000 count; and (ii) does not include a cigarette.”

That definition also excludes machine-made “little cigars” like Swisher Sweets, Tiparillos, White Owls and Phillies blunts — which is just as well. Cigars are cigars, and oversized cigarettes are just that.

The cigar industry is in lockstep behind the legislation (H.R. 1639 and S. 1461, if you’re interested), and the folks at Corona Cigar Co. in Orlando have done something unusual to promote it.

Private-label cigars are all the rage these days, and Corona made a special edition, the “House Resolution by JC Newman,” to proselytize about the need for a congressional fix. (RELATED: Cigar Hunter: Radio talker Rusty Humphries launches ‘El Presidente’)

Instead of torpedos, Churchills and robustos, the different vitolas are named “Speaker,” “Chairman” and “Whip.”

Corona is selling boxes of 20 for just $80 each. Each box comes with a free cutter and an insert about the House and Senate bills — and a hat-tip to Cigar Rights of America (CRA), the lobbying group that’s beating the bushes for co-sponsors on Capitol Hill. (Corona Cigar Co. founder Jeff Borysiewicz is also CRA’s chairman.)

CRA executive director Glynn Loope told me that the FDA is “going beyond the Congressional intent of tobacco regulation. Ten- to seventeen-year-olds aren’t buying $10 cigars.”

He also said his organization has generated over 30,000 petitions to The White House. But they “have not received a response on the issue of regulating cigars” from the Obama administration.

Hence the need for an act of Congress, Loope said. “H.R. 1639 and S. 1461 were initiated to protect this passion for a cigar from the heavy hand of the federal bureaucracy.”

The legislative effort seems to be working so far: The Senate bill has 12 co-sponsors, including four Democrats. The House bill has a whopping 218, including 48 Democrats. That’s more than half the House of Representatives, a sign that the bill is likely to pass if it gets to the House floor.

Posey spokesman George Cecala was clearly happy when I spoke with him last week, calling 218 a “magic number.” (Note: CRA now says the head-count is actually 219.)

“We’ve now clearly shown that a majority of house members support the bill,” he said. “And now we can go to the committee and say we should have a markup on this bill.”

In the Senate, though, it’s a bit of an uphill climb. The bill sits in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, chaired by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin.

“[T]he bill is before the Health Committee,” Nelson spokesman Ben Weiss explained. “It will move whenever Chairman Harkin wants to move it. I think that Harkin’s office can help you with your questions.”

Translation: Without Harkin’s say-so, the Senate bill won’t get a committee vote. And without the committee’s approval, it will never get a vote before the full Senate.

I emailed Harkin’s office several times about the bill’s status, but no one responded.

So how does the House Resolution cigar smoke? For a $4 medium-bodied cigar, it’s pretty good. Nothing terribly memorable flavor-wise, but definitely a higher-quality smoke than what you might otherwise buy as a novelty to pass out to friends.

Corona was kind enough to send me a box of maduros in the “Whip” size — 6-1/2″ x 52 — and I gave away practically the whole box. But I did smoke a few first.

Corona also reports that House Resolution cigars are made in JC Newman’s Nicaraguan factory from Nicaraguan filler that has sprung from Cuban seeds. The chocolatey wrapper is sungrown San Andres maduro.

The nice thing about sungrown maduro is the sweetness. Many cigar smokers mistake “maduro” for an indication of strength, but in reality it’s more predictive of sweetness on the very tip of the tongue. The House Resolution fits that mold perfectly. (RELATED:Cigar Hunter : Burning the midnight maduro)

The smoke is copious, the seams nearly invisible, the build firm. Even considering the length of the “Whip,” the draw was a little loose for me and the burn a bit quick. But again, these aren’t $20 cigars. The pleasure comes from knowing you’re investing in an effort to keep cigar retailers open and Big Government off your back.

The primary flavor? Cocoa, from toasted foot to the nub. I tasted some saltiness halfway through, which disturbed the balance a bit, but other more pleasant flavors came and went: nutmeg, hay, and — is that cashew I taste?

The final third of the cigar was less chocolately than the beginning, but far more smooth. There’s a certain velvety something about some — but not all — cigar smoke. Occasionally, you find a stogie that oozes both luxury and steadiness.

The House Resolution doesn’t have that quality from wire to wire, but both of the cigars I smoked had it during that final third.

Right after I smoked the first one, I remembered to get in touch with the FDA. Predictably, the agency’s answer was rendered in government-speak. Spokeswoman Jennifer Haliski told me that “there is no additional update at this time to the information that Kate [Abbott] provided to you in November [2011].”

I pressed her for information about a timetable for the new cigar regulations, and she replied that “FDA is moving as expeditiously as possible to release for public comment a proposed rule to regulate additional categories of tobacco products.”

So at least there will be a new round of public comments, but the FDA is under no obligation to pay attention to them.

Cecala said he doesn’t buy the FDA’s pretext that youngsters are buying Siglos and Kristoffs.

“Premium cigars are smoked by adults,” Cecala said, “and we don’t know of any instances where children go in to premium cigars shops and buy and select premium cigars. It’s just unheard of. ”

“What we’re trying to do is just say adults use this product and it’s a free country and we don’t need this regulation. … I mean, it’s worked fine for all these years.  Why do we suddenly need to do this? … We kind of think the FDA should be focused on other things like trying to solve some of the problems we’re having with pharmaceuticals.”

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David Martosko