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.
Some Black & Mild products, for example, are unfiltered and weigh enough to be classified as premium cigars.
In a June 4 memo circulated on Capitol Hill and obtained by Roll Call, Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris USA and John Middleton Co., the makers of Black & Mild cigars, said the company could dodge regulation by changing the wrappers of its products.
The legislation would “provide powerful incentives for machine made cigar companies to modify their products to avoid FDA regulation,” the memo said. “For example, if John Middleton Co. were to convert all of its machine-made cigars from reconstituted tobacco wraps to leaf tobacco wraps it could remove nearly its entire portfolio of products from potential FDA regulation.”
A spokesman for Altria said the company opposes the legislation.
“Altria and its cigar company John Middleton are opposed to exempting any cigars from FDA regulation,” he said in a statement to Roll Call. “It should be up to the FDA to decide, based on science and evidence, whether to assert jurisdiction over cigars.”
Supporters of the bill say that large players such as Altria are using hypotheticals to quash their efforts because the proposed language would not explicitly exempt them. They hope House leaders will roll the measure into the Agriculture, rural development, and Food and Drug Administration appropriations bill, which funds the FDA and could come to the floor within weeks.
Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, opposes the bill.
The companion bill in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), has just nine co-sponsors.
An FDA spokeswoman said the agency is “working as expeditiously as possible to issue the proposed rule.”