FDA May Regulate Premium Cigars

Makers and sellers are pushing preemptive legislation in Congress.

Aug. 9, 2012 -- Are big, fat, $10-a-piece cigars catnip to children? That's one question the Food and Drug Administration is mulling as it considers whether or not, or how, to regulate the sale of premium cigars.

Makers and sellers of such cigars, understandably nervous, are pushing preemptive legislation in Congress that would force the FDA to butt out.

Arthur Zaretsky, who runs The Famous Smoke Shop in Forks Township, Pa., says that while the feds have yet to specify what regulations might be impose, "the whole industry is quaking in its boots."

Zaretsky and other tobacconists fear two possibilities:

First, to ensure that no cigars are sold to minors, the FDA might prohibit all cigar sales except those made face-to-face. Sales via mail order or the Internet would be forbidden. That change alone, Zaretsky says, would snuff out 99 percent of his business.

Second, the FDA might mandate that cigars be sold the same way prescription drugs are sold in pharmacies: The customer, instead of strolling into a warm and fragrant humidor, where he could smell and handle a profusion of cigars, would be handed an antiseptic list, from which he would place his order. This already is the way cigars are sold by some tobacconists in Canada and Europe, says Brian Telford, owner of Telford's Pipe & Cigar in Mill Valley, Calif.

What would be the reason for such a rule? Telford speculates it might be to protect impressionable youths from the blandishments of colorful or seductive packaging -- in the same way that cigarette manufacturers now are forbidden from using kid-friendly cartoon characters to market cigarettes.

Says Zaretsky, "What the eye sees, the eye wants."

But are kids really attracted to pungent, pricey, all-tobacco, hand-made, premium cigars? Stogie-defenders say not.

They acknowledge there has been an uptick in sales to younger smokers of small, cheap, machine-made cigars flavored with additives like licorice or vanilla. But the customer for "real" cigars, they say, is older. The poster child for Macanudo (figuratively speaking) is not Justin Bieber. It's Rush Limbaugh.

Merchants who sell premium cigars want to distance themselves, for regulatory purposes, from purveyors of cheaper, more kid-friendly stuff.

"From the outside," says Zaretsky, "the cigar industry looks like a united front -- but it's not. Small, machine-made cigars are a totally different business. They sell 7 billion cigars a year. We sell 250 million. We're one-tenth of one percent of the cigar business in the U.S."

To protect themselves, makers and sellers of premium cigars have sponsored -- though a group called Cigar Rights of America -- two bills in Congress, S. 1461 and H.R. 1639, that would stop the FDA from regulating what the legislation calls "traditional large and premium cigars," as distinct from "little cigars." Sponsors include Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

The FDA, for its part, says on its website that it is "developing a strategy to regulate additional categories of tobacco products" beyond those it already does, which include cigarettes and smokeless tobacco (e.g., snuff and chewing tobacco). The site says the agency is moving "as expeditiously as possible" to release for public comment a new rule applicable to additional forms of tobacco, which, presumably, would include cigars.

Asked by ABC News if any date has been set for that release, an FDA spokesperson says not.

"First they said it would be June, then July," says Zaretsky. "Now, they say October. I doubt it will happen in October. They'll wait until after the election."

A meeting, he says, has been scheduled between the FDA and Cigar Rights of America for Aug. 23.