Money & Business

Why Cigar Enthusiasts Lit Up the FDA

By / Jul 21, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

With proposed tobacco rules likely to affect the cigar world, industry groups have successfully drummed up strong public reaction to the rules, which would set a price level for what constitutes a “premium cigar” that critics see as arbitrary.

The Federal Communications Commission’s call for comments on its net neutrality proposal ended last week—and drew more than a million responses. Not bad.

But that wasn’t the only issue driving people to write letters to a regulatory body in recent days: A set of proposed regulations affecting the cigar industry drew more than a few responses to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Thanks to the help of industry groups, those in the cigar trade and its biggest supporters were ready to speak up. More details:

The issue: In recent years the FDA has increased its regulatory power over the tobacco industry, specifically concerning cigarettes. Prior regulations passed over the smaller cigar space, but a more recent regulatory proposal would add other tobacco products to the agency’s purview. Much of the attention has gone to the regulations’ potential effects on the budding e-cigarette business, but the rules would also affect cigars, particularly inexpensive ones. The new rules would classify premium cigars as those over $10 and could exempt them from the new regulations, but that would still leave most cigars under the FDA’s control—and subject to the same kind of regulations that affect cigarettes.

“We’d be regulated out of business”: The problems, according to many in the cigar industry, are that the $10 figure is seen as arbitrary, that many hand-rolled cigars sell for less than that, and that the space is such a narrow niche these days that it could kill long-standing traditions. The last is an example that critics often point out when referring to the plight of Tampa, Florida’s J.C. Newman Cigar Company, the only cigar manufacturer left standing in “Cigar City.” While the company makes its cigars using vintage equipment, the products are inexpensive and would likely fall under increased scrutiny with the rule change. Specifically, the company would have to allow every kind of cigar it sells to undergo “rigorous scientific review” and an intensive FDA approval process, spend time testing new products before submitting them for FDA approval, and adhere to new manufacturing practices. Those practices could ban the company’s use of vintage equipment. “The lifeblood of any business is new products and services, and these regulations would make it impossible to introduce new products,” President Eric Newman told the Tampa Bay Times. “It would require 5,000 hours of product-testing and analysis. We’d be regulated out of business.”

Industry advocates speak up: In reaction to the proposed regulations, advocacy groups such as Cigar Rights of America and the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association have lobbied members and enthusiasts to send comments into the FDA. Of the roughly 55,000 responses, the Sunlight Foundation reports that slightly more than half have come from cigar smokers who oppose one aspect of the proposal—not applying the regulations to cigars that cost more than $10. According to the foundation, comments to the FDA include standard lines such as, “Premium cigars should be defined only by their construction and composition, and not by their price.” And advocates still have time to voice their opinions: The FDA is accepting comments on the proposed regulations until August 8.

One group that’s been a more restrained in its reaction to the rule changes is the Cigar Association of America, which noted that it was something of a victory that the FDA even noticed that there are many types of cigars on the market.

“The bottom line here is that FDA appears to recognize that our industry is composed of multiple segments with a tremendous variety of products,” CAA President Craig Williamson said in an April statement. “FDA also appears to agree with CAA that there is no possibility of fair and reasonable one-size-fits-all regulation.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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