Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The U.S. economy may not be growing, but the government sure is. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had explicit legal authority to regulate cigarettes and chewing tobacco only since 2009, and now the agency wants to go beyond the congressional mandate to shape up the American cigar industry.

Common sense goes up in smoke. The FDA wants to expand the categories of tobacco that fall under its authority and the targets are cigar aficionados, with the usual bundle of taxes, red tape and sales restrictions. This might not be so easy, since some Very Important People smoke cigars.

This all started in 1996, when President Clinton, who fancies a stogie, told the FDA to push Congress aside and regulate tobacco under its own authority. Cigarette marketing rules will expand to cigars under the dubious claim that rules were needed to “protect the children.” This should hardly apply to cigars; it’s not cool in teenage circles to light up a stogie. Not many teenagers can afford to pay $10 or more for a premium cigar. Retailers are prohibited now from selling cigars to anyone under 18, and cigar stores card anyone who appears to be underage.

But a bureaucrat never lets facts and common sense get in the way of seizing more turf. The FDA is mulling a range of possibilities, such as banning the sale of cigars online, which represent a significant portion of cigar sales; new and punitive taxes, and limits on “commemorative cigars.” Cigar-tobacco blends would have to be approved by the FDA. Popular events like the “Big Smoke” in Las Vegas and even walk-in humidors in cigar shops would be prohibited. Just about everything a cigar smoker likes appears to be on the table.

Cigar retailers are upset about the bad things they see coming their way. “If the FDA regulates the premium tobacco industry in the same way they do with other tobacco, it will be devastating, harming tens of thousands of domestic jobs and thousands of small ‘mom-and-pop’ Main Street businesses,” says Bill Spann, CEO of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association.

There’s bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill, where cigars are popular in the cloakrooms on both sides of the aisle. The two senators from Florida, Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, have introduced legislation to snuff the FDA’s prospective rules. Rep. Bill Posey, Florida Republican, has introduced the companion bill to prohibit imposing cigarette regulations on premium cigar tobacco. This time, the federal nannies have quit preaching and gone to meddling.

Winston Churchill, who fancied a cigar with his champagne, once explained the allure of the stogie: “Smoking cigars is like falling in love. First, you are attracted by its shape; you stay for its flavor, and you must always remember never, never to let the flame go out.” Alas, bureaucrats are immune to romance.

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