The Food and Drug Administration announced today plans to enact greater restrictions over the tobacco products sold in the United States. The government agency—which was given control of the U.S. tobacco industry in 2009 by an act of Congress—intends to further restrict the sale of tobacco products and to increase FDA’s involvement in the process of making and selling tobacco products in the United States, but the organization also said that it would consider an exemption for the premium cigar industry.
The FDA wrote that it was proposing an option “to exclude from the scope of this proposed rule certain cigars that we refer to as ‘premium cigars.’” The agency is seeking comment from the public on the possibility of carving out the exemption, and over the next 75 days, people will be able to voice their opinion about the possibility.
The vast majority of cigars sold in the United States are made on machines, so called mass-market cigars that count their sales in the billions of units annually. Those cigars can be the size of a cigarette or the size of a traditional cigar, some have filters and most are made with a mixture of ingredients. Premium, hand-made cigars count their sales in the hundreds of millions (some 314 million were imported into the United States in 2013) and they are made by hand, with long-filler tobaccos. The vast majority are made with only one ingredient, cigar tobacco.
Reaction to the 241-page-document was mixed, but leading voices in the world of premium cigars were encouraged by the possibility of an exemption from FDA control.
“It appears that two years worth of education work has paid off to a degree because it does seem that [the FDA is] recognizing the difference between premium cigars and e-cigarettes and mass market products,” said J. Glynn Loope, executive director of Cigar Rights of America, a group made up of consumers and cigar manufacturers that lobbies for cigar smokers’ rights. “This public comment period is going to be critical to further drive that point home.”
“I’m definitely encouraged that the FDA seems to be listening to the premium cigar industry,” said Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, CEO of Oettinger Davidoff AG.
Said Rob Levin, owner of the Ashton brand: “The fact that the FDA has separated premiums, in one regard or another, is a huge plus.”
Eric Newman, president of Tampa’s J.C. Newman Cigar Co., agrees. “Where I was pleasantly surprised was the reference to the FDA taking a special look at premium cigars. I think that’s a real credit to the people involved with the CRA. The premium cigar industry did a heck of a job educating the legislatures and FDA on how special and different premium cigars are from other tobacco products.”
“We have been actively working with the FDA and members of Congress for the past four years, and have partnered with industry trade associations to advocate that premium cigars are a unique category in tobacco,” said Dan Carr, president of General Cigar Co. “The regulatory process has now begun in earnest… We are hopeful that Center for Tobacco Products will make scientific-based decisions that will allow adult consumers to continue to responsibly enjoy premium cigars.”
Craig Williamson, president of the Cigar Association of America, was unable to comment by press time for this edition of the article.
Cigarmakers in the premium sector have lobbied for the exemption, and have support in Congress: more than 154 representatives and some 15 U.S. senators have agreed to support the exemption.
Cigarmakers fear what could happen to the premium cigar business should the FDA not grant the industry an exemption and move forward with all of its proposed regulations, which could include FDA inspection of factories and control over new product releases.
“The FDA doesn’t understand how complicated the premium cigar sector is as opposed to other segments of the tobacco industry,” said Rocky Patel of Rocky Patel Premium Cigars Inc. “We’re not using machines and pressing buttons. There is no set formula. There is no set manufacturing process. It’s not like making a pharmaceutical drug, and it will take years before they can learn how to make educated decisions on the premium cigar industry and the general public. I make a natural product. To put us in the same category as e-cigarettes, flavored machine-made cigars and blunt-wraps is an insult to the business and to the entire culture.”
“Right now, we’re not totally clear on the final regulation decisions, but my concern is that the FDA will impose best-manufacturing practices like ISO 9000 standards, which are very, very expensive to satisfy,” said Alan Rubin, owner of Alec Bradley Cigar Co. “Some of the small manufacturers might not be able to comply. It could shut them down completely and the smaller manufacturers are what’s driving a lot of excitement and innovation in the industry right now….Premium cigars take up such a small segment of the tobacco business but the FDA paints in very broad strokes and tries to broad-brush the premium industry with mass-market tobacco. We should have an exemption so that the FDA can better understand our industry. We are very niche and we don’t market nor appeal to children. If they’re trying to protect kids from tobacco, they don’t need to protect them from us.”
Another potentially detrimental regulation would prohibit the distribution of free samples.
“That’s decimating,” said Loope. “How do you hold a multimillion dollar trade show, how do you market new cigar products if you’re not allowed to provide samples?”
Cigarmakers said the real work was ahead, and that the public commentary was essential.
“Now it’s up to us,” said cigarmaker Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana. “We need to mobilize every cigar smoker.”
Said Patel: “This is the most important time for everyone in the industry to make their voices heard. The FDA takes these comments very seriously.”
“The upcoming public forum is critical right now,” said Jeff Borysiewicz, owner of Corona Cigar Co. “It is very important for consumers to comment on premium cigars in the upcoming 75 days. The FDA looks at every comment and is required to respond. If we don’t push back enough, nothing will happen. Antismoking activists are going to get a lot of people to comment on the forums. It’s a numbers game and we all need to participate and make our voices heard.”
This is a developing story; expect updates on this website and look for expanded coverage in the next Cigar Insider newsletter.