FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Cigar businesses are hoping to chip away at the Tobacco Control Act, which gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration more say over the marketing and distribution of tobacco products in 2009.
With the law not specific yet on cigar regulations, the cigar industry wants Congress to protect premium brands from standards imposed on cigarettes, such as requiring new health-warning labels, banning certain flavors and limiting the sizes and shapes of cigars.
Supporters say that small cigar shops will suffer from the potential changes to their products.
“Many of these places are mom-and-pop businesses,” said George Cecala, spokesman for Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., a sponsor of the House version of the bill. “No one should be surprised that these businesses aren’t able to plan for the future or continue to grow.”
Last Thursday, the bill passed through the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. Posey’s House version currently has 205 co-sponsors while the companion bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has 11 co-sponsors.
The legislation focuses on premium cigars, which supporters say, are different from other tobacco products. Unlike mass-marketed cigars, premium cigars are heavier, handmade, and higher-quality. They are also pricier, with many ranging from $13 to $30 each.
“It has a subculture, like that of wine connoisseurs,” said Cecala.
Some cigar shop owners, such as Elissa Noyes, are concerned about what the possible increased government oversight might do to their businesses.
“This is my livelihood,” said Noyes, owner of a two-year-old cigar store, Charmed Leaf, in Delray Beach, Fla. “With those kinds of regulations, (my store) wouldn’t be able to survive.”
Noyes says FDA regulations would reduce the industry’s rights as well as her clients’.
“Our customers are adults making adult decisions for themselves,” she said.
Anti-tobacco organizations like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, however, are worried the bill is an opportunity for cigar companies to create a loophole that would allow advertising aimed at children.
They claim the legislation defines premium cigars “in a way that could encompass a variety of non-premium cigars with sweet flavors, low prices and colorful packaging that appeal to youth.”
“We don’t think that any product should be exempt from FDA regulation, even more so one that is known to cause cancer,” said Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that there are about 13.3 million cigar smokers in the U.S. and about 43.3 million cigarette users. Among reported high school students, 10.9 percent smoke cigars.
“If (cigar companies) are responsible, they won’t advertise to kids,” McGoldrick said.
Yet, according to local business owners, kids are not the target customers.
“Premium cigars are never marketed to children,” said Abe Dababneh, owner of the cigar company Smoke Inn and a Cigar Rights of America ambassador to the West Palm Beach, Fla., area. “Our stores don’t appeal to younger people in the first place. They can’t afford it.”
With more than nine cigar shop locations in South Florida, Dababneh says that the FDA and other organizations don’t realize how much the situation could affect small businesses.
“It would change how our industry is run,” Dababneh said. “The way we’ve sold our product for over half a century will stop.”