Since entering the premium cigar industry 5 years ago, one constant has been the talk of the FDA on the tips of all tongues. This looming, boogey-man, evil organization as it is spoken of, is closing in, just waiting to pounce at the first opportunity to shut all of tobacco down. Back then, the main topic was substantial equivalence. For those that do not understand what substantial equivalence means, it’s this: any cigar that was not made prior to 2007 would require rigorous testing that could cost upwards of $300,000 per new cigar and for each vitola. Whoa!
People were freaking out. What struck me sideways about the entire thing was that if enacted and enforced, it would benefit the big companies and eventually wipe out the smaller, newer companies. And furthermore, how the hell would the FDA keep track of what tobacco is being used in the cigar. What would stop a company from telling the FDA they are using a grandfathered blend with a new band on it and renaming it? The entire thing made very little sense to me.
I decided to plow forward as though the entire thing would blow over because in the end it made no sense and would be difficult to enforce. I was right (this rarely happens). Although maybe not forever, it was recently removed from the conversation by a Judge Mehta of U.S. District Court of Washington. I suppose I am naive. I believed the FDA was here to protect consumers. That is their mission, of course. The Food and Drug Administration lists this as their purpose:
“The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.”
Forget, for a moment, everything I wrote in this article up to this point except the FDA’s explanation of itself. Responsible for protecting public health. If you were responsible for protecting public health, what age groups would you want to protect most? I’d say the youth and the elderly. I’m not sure if they give priority to these groups but it is safe to say youth gets favored when creating consumption laws. Otherwise, the phrase “21 and over” would never have entered the common lexicon.
Now I want to share with you my strategy for getting premium cigars out of potential FDA control. Remember, premium cigars have not truly been governed by the FDA through any regulatory action – certainly not to the level of cigarettes, smokeless, and roll-your-own tobaccos. All this talk over the past few years has been about IF the FDA should regulate premium cigars. Cigarettes are controlled by the FDA. They require signs, warning labels and manufacturers of cigarettes are told what they can and cannot do in regards to marketing and many other aspects of their business.
The Tobacco Control Act granted FDA authority to regulate any other tobacco products, and cigars are tobacco, so why have they gone unregulated and what can we do to keep it that way? I have some ideas:
Let’s separate ourselves and stay separate from places where the general public go. Cigars have been a mature person’s game since the 1990s. Prior to the 90s, cigars were just like cigarettes in the sense that you bought them at a news stand and people who smoked them smoked them everywhere. The decline in popularity of cigars during the 60s, 70s and 80s took us off the radar of the FDA when cigarettes were under fire. Cigars did not become terribly popular again until the late 90s. Even then cigars were synonymous with glamor, expensive lifestyles and something you did in celebration or in the presence of success. They were a staple in high end lounges and nightclubs. And then it fizzled out in the early 2000s, being reserved for home use or at a local shop that made most of its income from cigars alone. Keep in mind, most cigar shops do not sell cigarettes. When I was younger that always struck me as odd: it’s all tobacco, so why didn’t cigar shops stock cigarettes too? Over time as I learned more about cigars, it became clear as day: they are worlds apart and they absolutely should be sold in specialty shops.
Let’s make this separation even more specific: do not sell cigars in places that minors and the general public frequent. And while we are on this topic of separation from the general public, as someone who has made it a business to create a community of cigar smokers on mainstream social media platforms, is it wise? How would we all feel if Marlboro cigarettes started doing what we do? Are they even allowed to? The answer is no. Cigarette companies are not allowed to market on social media. We obviously see premium cigars headed in this direction: whether outright banned, or shadow banned by the algorithms, things are not looking good for the cigar industry on mainstream social media platforms. Perhaps if we essentially disappeared from these platforms and physical locations where there are minors, there would be no reason to regulate.
Lastly, what we as an industry must do to keep cigars out of regulation is beat the idea into peoples’ heads that you do not inhale cigars. You’d be shocked at how many people that aren’t cigar smokers believe that a cigar is inhaled. It is not. They should know that. Put up a sign in every brick and mortar shop that says “never inhale a cigar”.
So, if you worked for the FDA and I wanted to keep premium cigars off your desk, I would never sell them anywhere other than cigar shops and possibly liquor stores. i.e. only places where people who are 21 and over are allowed in the first place. I would also paint it all over cigar culture that we do not inhale cigars. I would focus on how natural our manufacturing process is and how we try to ferment the bad things out while cigarettes try to keep bad things in and even add to the bad things. I would focus on the craft of hand rolled products; the care that goes into the process and the cleanliness of it all. I would maybe even highlight how many owners of cigar companies smoke between 5-10 cigars a day and have lived longer than the average American citizen.
But all in all, I would keep these premium cigars separate from any other products that are regulated and separated from minors and people who do not smoke cigars. I quote the OffSpring, “Ya gotta Keep Em Separated”!
So when I was sent a picture of what the brand new 7-11s are going to look like I damn near had an aneurysm. Gorgeous stores. So gorgeous the front counter has a humidor built into it. Occupying that humidor is a lineup of premium cigars, all stocked by one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of cigars in the world. They’ve even made their top-selling infused cigar available right there alongside the others. Folks, this is the fastest way to get premium cigars regulated if I have ever seen it. Right next to the impulse buy candy rack, right up front at the counter.
Anyone else see where this is going? Aside from the obvious concerns with the general public, where the hell does this leave the small brick and mortar shops that built these brands and got them where they are in the first place? The whole thing made me sick to my stomach.
Perhaps industry associations would be better served, as would the members they are supposed to represent, if their valuable time and resources were spent preserving the long term future of the industry rather than focusing on the art that consumers enjoy seeing on their cigar bands.
These nostalgic graphic elements they are so disapproving of are only placed on products sold to private members or in shops where there are age restrictions. If the same outcry fails to manifest for these counter displays, then what are we really talking about here when individual companies are singled out for their reverence of pop culture and passion for packaging that rises to meet the level of the products it contains?
Before launching these types of attacks on the industry from within, one alternative might just be for these groups to look at some of their biggest financial donors and ask them this year to hold their donation in return for pulling their products out of any businesses that serves minors. It may not be THE answer, and it certainly isn’t the ONLY answer, but it’s one that can start a different kind of conversation.