- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

RICHMOND — Sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar.

From large hand-rolled cigars and smaller machine-made cigars to little cigars similar in size to cigarettes, there are nearly as many cigars as there are aficionados to enjoy them. And as federal regulators weigh standards for the entire industry, some in the cigar world are pushing to make sure their livelihoods and the products they enjoy don’t go up in smoke.

While the Food and Drug Administration has expressed its intention to regulate cigars under a 2009 law that gave it authority over the tobacco industry, it has yet to specify what’s ahead as it ramps up efforts to curb the death and disease caused by tobacco.

If it’s anything like the FDA’s regulation of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, that could mean banning certain flavors, requiring new health warnings, limiting the sizes and shapes of cigars or imposing restrictions on marketing, advertising and retail sales. Cigars also may be restricted from being sold separately, and the agency also could limit the amount of nicotine in the products.

The premium-cigar industry argues that any number of the potential restrictions could hurt both cigar makers and specialty tobacco stores, whose products make up only a small fraction of tobacco sales and don’t pose the same concerns as cigarettes. The range of sizes and shapes of cigars makes across-the-board standards almost impossible, they also say.

Even the House Appropriations Committee weighed in on the issue in its report on the fiscal 2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill on Tuesday, reminding the FDA that “premium cigars have unique characteristics and cost-prohibitive price points and are not marketed to kids. Any effort to regulate cigars should take these items into consideration.”

“If you’re going to focus your efforts on regulating tobacco products to meet the spirit and intent of the Tobacco Control Act, where is best to spend those scarce resources - on a tenth of a percent of the market or on a huge chunk of the market?” asked Bill Spann, CEO of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association, an industry group representing more than 2,000 tobacco retailers and more than 350 cigar manufacturers, distributors and others.

According to the latest federal data, there are about 13.3 million cigar smokers in the U.S., far fewer than the 45.3 million U.S. cigarette smokers.

U.S. tobacco sales topped $107 billion in 2011, but just 7 percent, or $7.77 billion, consisted of cigars, according to statistics from Euromonitor International. And of the 7 billion cigars sold annually, only about 250 million of them qualify as premium, handmade cigars that range in price from $6 to $30 and are, as far as Mr. Spann is concerned, akin to fine wines and craft beer.

While Mr. Spann recognizes the need for tobacco regulation, he said he thinks smoking premium cigars is a hobby, not a habit, and they aren’t marketed or sold to children.

“You don’t have a middle schooler or high schooler standing on the corner with a $15 Davidoff sticking out of their mouth,” he said.

As far as regulation is concerned, the greatest need is to “put an end to the production and marketing of products that have the greatest appeal to youth,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, singling out machine-made large cigars, little cigars and tobacco wrappers sold at convenience stores for low prices and in a variety of flavors, such as peach and strawberry.

Nearly 19 percent of high school boys smoke cigars, according to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. That’s slightly fewer than the 2005 rate of 19.2 percent.

“These highly flavored little cigars clearly appeal disproportionately to young people and have the potential to serve as starter tobacco products,” Mr. Myers said.

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