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What do political opposites Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Allen West (R-Fla.) have in common? They both dig a good premium smoke.
The lawmakers, with almost 200 colleagues — from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) — are backing a House bill that would block the government from regulating high-end cigars the way it does cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration, which currently regulates cigarettes and chewing tobacco, is poised to make cigars subject to a 2009 law that gave it power to oversee the sale of tobacco products.
Premium cigar companies and sellers worry that such regulations could require the producers of high-end cigars to include health warnings on packaging, force sellers to store cigars in separate rooms accessible only to employees, and bar shopkeepers from making sales over the phone or
recommending a particular product.
“There’s a lot more that goes into purchasing a premium cigar than just a brand,” said John Anderson, the owner of W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist, a 125-year-old cigar shop just blocks from the White House. “There’s a romance to it.”
With the guidance of a team of lobbyists from K&L Gates, Anderson helped lawmakers craft legislation to protect his industry. The bill, which now has 199 co-sponsors, seeks to exempt premium cigars from government regulation, defining them as unfiltered products, wrapped in leaf tobacco, that weigh more than
6 pounds for every 1,000 cigars. The International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retail Association has spent $240,000 on lobbying since the beginning of last year, according to Senate records.
Congress granted the FDA the authority to govern the sale and marketing of tobacco products in 2009 in an effort to curb teen smoking, but cigar producers and sellers argue that lawmakers did not intend to restrict luxury smokes. The expected ruling could come as early as this summer.
“We don’t want them to regulate premium cigars. We are the legislative branch and we determine that,” said George Cecala, a spokesman for Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), who introduced the bill last year. “You have a number of people at the FDA who are bent at chipping away at people’s abilities to enjoy things.”
The American Cancer Society, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other anti-smoking groups are not pleased. The groups argue that the makers of inexpensive, flavored cigar-like products sold in convenience stores would use the legislation to dodge regulation.
“We think it is not good public health policy to create an exemption for an entire category of tobacco products that cause cancer,” said Gregg Haifley, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.