Politics & Policy

The FDA Chomps Down on Cigars

Why regulate a hobby as if it were a dangerous habit?

By proposing a ban on large sodas in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg made himself a competitive candidate for Chairman of the Anti-Fun Committee. But the FDA just might have him beat: They’ve moved to regulate cigars as they already do cigarettes. 

Representative Bill Posey (R., Fla.) has introduced legislation, currently before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to block the FDA’s effort. So far, his bill has 203 co-sponsors in the House and nine in the Senate, including Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), who has introduced a version in the upper chamber. 

“It certainly appears to many Americans and to Mr. Posey that the FDA is intent on taking over anything that is bad for you and regulating it,” George Cecala, a spokesman for Posey, tells me.

Lawmakers worry that the new rules could hurt small businesses and interfere with cigar smokers’ enjoyment of their hobby. Though the agency has yet to lay out its new regulations in detail, industry insiders speculate that it could ban flavored cigars, require ugly warning labels or graphic pictures on cigar boxes, bar customers from entering store humidors, or require that cigars be kept out of the reach of potential buyers, who typically handle and examine them before choosing which ones to buy.

“Banning that experience would be crippling,” says Gary Pesh, the owner of Old Virginia Tobacco in Richmond, Virginia, and executive officer of Cigar Rights of America. “Making a customer pick their brand of cigars from a black-and-white catalog — that destroys the way we’ve done business.”

Pesh says some speculate that the FDA would also bar shops from letting their products be visible to anyone outside the store.“That means I’d have to put blacked-out windows on my storefront,” he explains. “Like a porn shop or something.”

New FDA regulations could result in the immediate closing of many cigar shops, most of which employ only three to five people and operate with slim profit margins. About 85,000 people work in the premium-cigar industry — jobs that would be in jeopardy if the FDA’s regulatory power grab succeeds. 

“To jeopardize 85,000 jobs in today’s economic times is absolutely unconscionable,” says Bill Spann, CEO of the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association.

Pesh thinks small shops could also be hurt by user fees the FDA can charge to the businesses it regulates. “I’d have to pay to put me out of business,” he explains. 

Richard Hu, the owner of Wall Street Humidor, a New York City–based cigar shop, also worries that new regulations could force many shops like his to close their doors permanently, noting that “there’s plenty of regulation already.”

The FDA made its announcement about a year ago, claiming that the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave it power to regulate the sale of cigars as well as cigarettes. 

Posey and the bill’s co-sponsors, however, disagree. Posey’s spokesman explains that the intent of the legislation is to help reduce teen smoking rates — not to regulate a product rarely if ever marketed to those under 18. In fact, the topic of premium cigars never came up during debate over the bill.

Dan Holler, communications director of Heritage Action for America, notes that the law specifically mentions cigarettes, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco, but never cigars. The FDA’s claims, he concludes, are groundless.

“It really does seem sort of like bureaucratic overreach, which is obviously nothing new,” he comments. “It just so happens that there’s bipartisan opposition to this one.”

FDA representatives did not respond to requests for comment, perhaps because they were too busy finding fun things to regulate.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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