Premium handmade cigars go up in smoke

Published 3:00 am Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has got me smoking mad.

Last week, the FDA released 499 pages of new regulations that pertain to the production and sale of tobacco products in the U.S. that extended its control to the premium cigar industry.

The new regulations are the result of the 2010 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which granted the FDA the authority “to regulate marketing and promotion of tobacco products and to set performance standards for tobacco products to protect the public health.”

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Here’s the problem: They treat premium, handmade cigars over $10 in the same category as the little machine-made cigars and e-cigarettes that young people are smoking in big numbers.

You see, premium handmade cigars are bought almost exclusively by middle-aged people who can afford 10 bucks or more a stick — which is why handmade cigars account for only 2.1 percent of the 14 billion cigars that are consumed in the United States every year.

And that is why the FDA had the option to exempt premium cigars from its new rules — cigars that are supplied primarily by small, creative entrepreneurs who lack the thousands of dollars they will need to achieve FDA approval.

According to some estimates, it will cost anywhere from $250,000 to $330,000 for a single cigar product to complete the FDA approval process — which will put thousands of the most creative blends out of business.

Like many cigar aficionados, I like to try different cigars on a regular basis. My favorite handmade cigar has its origin at the Leaf & Bean in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Created by “Island Jim” Robinson, owner of the Leaf & Bean, and Oscar Valladares, a cigar maker in Honduras, “Leaf by Oscar” has been a huge hit across the country. It’s been followed by 14 additional specialty blends, and the two have created jobs for more than 150 people.

But if the FDA ruling stands, all of Jim and Oscar’s cigars, and all of the jobs they create, will cease.

While it makes sense for the FDA to regulate small flavored cigars and e-cigarette products that are being consumed by young people, it makes little sense for them to do so for a premium product that is primarily consumed by middle-aged adults — adults who should be free in a free country to enjoy the occasional vice of their choice.

Besides, unlike cigarette smokers, moderate cigar smokers don’t inhale the thick stogie smoke. They don’t become addicted to nicotine. And, at $10 a pop or more, premium cigars aren’t likely to end up in the hands of underage kids.

All I know is that cigar smoking is dang relaxing. I get some of my best writing down while enjoying a few tokes. Some of my most enjoyable conversations with friends and strangers involve cigars and a snort of good bourbon.

But the big hand of government will infringe on that freedom. Many of the small handmade cigar businesses will go out of business. The many wonderful entrepreneurs who travel the country with their newest blends will disappear.

And, as is often the case when the government intervenes in a big way, only the big companies will survive. The cost of complying with FDA rules will drive up cigar production costs — costs that will be passed onto me, the consumer.

Look, it doesn’t have to be this way. The premium handmade cigar business is flourishing with lots of creative entrepreneurs who are serving the desires of a select audience of middle-aged people who choose to enjoy an occasional cigar.

And now you know why the new FDA regulations got me smoking mad.

Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist.