What was once a state issue has become a federal one. With the stroke of a pen, the legal age to buy tobacco anywhere in the U.S. became 21 immediately after President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on December 20—and retailers of premium cigars aren’t happy about the new restrictions. Their ire, however, doesn’t come from the prospect of lost business, as most premium cigar smokers are well over 21 years old.
Cigar Aficionado contacted some of the country’s most prominent retailers to get their perspectives and opinions on this recent legislation.
“It should be a state’s rights issue and not a federal one,” said Kendall Culbertson, owner of The Outlaw Cigar Company, a large cigar shop and lounge in Kansas City, Missouri. “We really didn’t have many customers that were less than 21. I think it’s horrific that you can go to war for our country but not have all the freedoms our country has to offer.”
His sentiments are far from new. The same rhetoric is often used in protest of the federal drinking age, and it seems to be a popular arguing point for those in the tobacco industry, as the federal tobacco purchase law has no exemption for military personnel.
Finnie Helmuth of The Humidour Cigar Shoppe in Cockeysville, Maryland, thinks the most negative aspect is the withdrawal of the military exemption. “We had worked tirelessly with our state legislators for that exemption,” she said. “The federal law has revoked it. It’s not hurting our business substantially, but we fought hard for it. There are many cigar retailers near military bases. Our store isn’t, but those that are depend, to an appreciable extent, on their military customers.”
“The overwhelming volume of my company comes from the 25-to-50-year-old age group,” said Craig Cass, who owns Tinderbox cigar shops in North and South Carolina, "but I do believe if someone can fight for our country, they should be able to enjoy a premium cigar.”
David Garofalo owns and operates three Two Guys Smoke Shops in New Hampshire, making him one of the highest-volume premium cigar retailers in New England. He’s been selling cigars since 1985 and believes that a 20-year old is more than capable of making an adult decision regarding tobacco.
“They can choose who will be running our government with their right to vote,” Garofalo said. “They can choose to get married and divorced. They can choose to have a child or even adopt. They can serve on a jury and decide a life sentence or even death sentence. They can even be tried in court themselves and will do so as an adult. That’s because they are adults. But our government is saying now that a 20-year-old does not have a developed enough brain to make a decision to buy a cigar or not.”
In the midst of fast-changing rules, the Premium Cigar Association (previously the IPCPR) is working to provide its retail members with details on the new regulations and to assist them to comply with federal policy, but the PCA condemns the government for its immediate instatement of the law.
“PCA is disappointed in the FDA’s rollout of the new policy that went into effect immediately as opposed to the traditional regulatory route with a 180-day period to release a formal regulation,” said PCA president John Anderson in an official statement. “The rollout has caused a lot of confusion for retailers, consumers and state and local enforcement agencies. Posting on the FDA website and on social media is not effectively communicating substantive policy to key stakeholders.”
Old Oaks Cigar & Liquor Co., of Thousand Oaks, California, sells a range of tobacco products—strictly premium cigars and pipe tobacco—that isn’t much affected by the new law. “The percentage of young men who buy cigars isn’t up to where you really feel the difference,” said Arsenne Chrikjian, co-owner of the store, which also sells premium spirits and has an extensive smoking lounge. “Young men are not in an economic position to be regular cigar smokers. What we feel more is when the taxes go up.”
Michael Frey of Las Vegas, Nevada, also feels that the new age restrictions will have minimal impact on business. Frey’s locations, such as Casa Fuente and Montecristo Cigar Bar, also sell liquor, so they already prohibit people under age 21.
“Because we have liquor I’ve always been 21,” Frey said. “It will have no effect on us. Kids don’t smoke cigars. Maybe five people a year under 21 come in to try to buy cigars.”
More than 2,000 miles away in Orlando, Florida, Jeff Borysiewicz anticipates the age restrictions to decrease sales by less than five percent. He owns three Corona Cigar Co. stores—one in downtown Orlando and two more in the Orlando area.
“It’s bad for our business,” he says, “especially due to the large number of college-age students in the Orlando area. Orlando’s got the biggest university in the whole state of Florida. Instead of going to a club and getting silly, they come to a cigar store.”
He also mentioned that it will impact some of his employees.
“We have a lot of people who work for us who are under 21. It’s a great first job.”
Before the tobacco purchasing age became federal law, 19 states had already been 21-and-over, with more states that seemed likely to follow.
“I’m kind of split on the issue,” said Boris Grossman, owner of three Matador Cigars cigar lounges across Long Island, New York. “It isn’t right that an 18-year-old can fight in a war but can’t make decisions about tobacco. But I can relate to the other standpoint. Some people are more mature than others. Ultimately, I don’t like government getting involved in business in general. Government should stick to funding the military and fixing the roads.”