- - Sunday, May 3, 2015

The only surviving trace of Thomas Riley Marshall, the vice president of the United States under Woodrow Wilson, is his observation that “what this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar.” A nickel of 1916 would buy a lot more tobacco than a nickel would buy in 2015, but a cigar would still be a stogie. The bureaucrats at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who never let opportunity to nag and scold go to waste, are eagerly plotting to seize cigars of any price.

Congress enacted the “The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act” in 2009 to make it harder for the young to buy tobacco, and to support programs encouraging smokers to quit the evil weed. But a Washington bureaucrat never stops at a foot when he can take a yard, so the FDA is using the law, which was enacted only to regulate cheap cigars, to regulate premium cigars, too. There’s a big difference, as anyone who ever puffed one — or anyone forced to smell one — could tell you.

The cigar market is large — 13.9 billion sold annually — but only about 300 million are “premium cigars,” originally defined as wrapped in 100 percent leaf tobacco, weighing at least 6 pounds per 1,000 cigars, with neither filters nor tips. Premium cigars are expensive; you could buy a decent lunch with the money some premiums cost, and such cigars are well beyond the reach of the pockets of most young people.

However, the FDA and the Center for Tobacco Products wants to put them with other cigars to require cigar makers to seek FDA approval of seasonal and historical blends and lines, and ban samples and put warning labels on cigar boxes. The proposed rule-making, made public in April 2014, has generated more than 82,000 public comments, many urging exempting premium cigars from the regulations.

The agency has been reviewing the data for some time, and a recommendation will ultimately go to the White House Office of Management and Budget for a decision.

This is a relatively narrow issue, but the impact could be large. The industry accounts for thousands of jobs, both in the United States and with thousands more in the Caribbean. The Honduran ambassador to the United States, Jorge Alberto Milla Reyes, argues that “some of the regulations proposed by the [FDA] would prove disastrous to the centuries old cigar industry that provides an estimate of over 35,000 direct jobs in Honduras, and represents millions of dollars in export revenue, and a source of economic stability. This regulatory measure threatens such jobs, and raises the specter of political and economic consequences.”

Congress is considering two pieces of legislation, H.R. 662 and. S.S. 441, to protect both the industry and cigar smokers, who include many rich and famous men, including influential politicians who enjoy lighting up with a brandy after a sumptuous dinner. Some of the rich and famous could afford to light up a Cohiba Esplendido with a $20 bill, which wouldn’t be enough to pay for a good Cuban premium. Since premium cigars are not easily accessible to young people like other kinds of tobacco, cigar smokers argue there is no need to expand the regulation of cigars and tobacconists. Given who the friends of premium cigars are, and the determination of the government to control everything, this is an issue not likely to soon go up in smoke.

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