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Close, But No Cigar

By Scott Orr

They’ve been attacking tobacco sales for years, raising taxes on cigarettes, banning smoking in public places, seeking new warning labels and limits on advertising. Now, some lo­cal governments are going after a new boogeyman: The sale of individually packaged cigars in convenience stores and elsewhere. Rudyard Kipling’s famous words notwithstanding, some local officials think a good cigar is more than just a smoke for some. In Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dallas and Prince George’s County, Maryland, lawmakers have sought bans on the sale of single cigars, saying they appeal to young smokers and that they are often hollowed out and used to smoke marijuana.

 

The latest run at government regulation of a tobacco product is playing out in the nation’s capital, where Councilmember Yvette Alexander has sponsored legislation to classify single cigars as drug paraphernalia, along the lines of bongs and crack pipes. Elsewhere, similar legislation has been met with protests and lawsuits from retailers and cigar manufacturers.

Nigist Tadesse, who manages a 7-Eleven store in Southwest Washing­ton, located at the foot of Capitol Hill not far from the Washington National’s ball­park, said single cigars are a very popu­lar item that draws customers into her store every day. While she said the profit on single cigars is small, about 7 percent, Tadesse worries that the ban will keep away customers who might come in for a cigar and then buy other items.

"In this economy, maybe people don’t have a lot of money and they don’t want to be forced to buy more cigars than they actually want," said Tadesse, who goes by the nickname "Queenie." "It’s not about the profit from the sale of that one cigar, but when a customer comes in for a single 'Black & Mild,’ he might also buy other things. The government doesn’t seem to understand this," she said.

Queenie’s point could well apply to all of the government’s efforts toward increased regulation and taxation of tobacco products, which make up close to 40 percent of in-store sales at conve­nience stores, according to the latest NACS State of the Industry data.

A Bunch of Ash
To be sure, the sale of single cigars is hardly a make or break proposition for convenience stores, but opponents see it as yet another government interven­tion into sales of a product that is wholly legal, another step down an already slippery slope. Cigars total about 30 percent of convenience store sales of to­bacco products other than cigarettes, or about $13,000 per store per year. There are no statistics on how many of those cigars are sold individually.

Norm Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America (CAA), which represents the cigar industry, strongly objects to the D.C. bill and the direct connection it draws between cigars and drug abuse.

"In Washington D.C., and in other jurisdictions, [legislators] want to clas­sify individual cigars as drug parapher­nalia designed and sold specifically to be used to smoke marijuana," Sharp said. He sees restricting single cigar sales, whether in a convenience store or a tobacco shop, as another example of lawmakers overreaching their bounds and attempting to legislate consumer behavior in the name of good health.

Councilmember Alexander, appar­ently, doesn’t know much about the convenience retailing business. Wit­ness this quote: "I believe the major source of income at a gas station should be gasoline and the major source of in­come at a corner store should be non­perishable food items, so I wonder what kind of business they’re really in." Her bill states in its title that its aim is to "ban the sale of individual cigars or cigar products intended or designed for use in ingesting, inhaling or other­wise introducing marijuana in to the human body." The bill’s language, how­ever, omits "intended or designed" and speaks instead to products that "may" be used as a marijuana delivery device.

 

"Overwhelmingly, the sale of single cigars is for legitimate, legal purposes," said Sharp. "To automatically assume any sale of an individual cigar is for illicit purposes is going overboard and won’t be really effective. Sale of individual ci­gars is very important to the industry...It’s ironic: If the government is claiming cigars have health concerns then why force a person to buy more than one? Data shows 75 to 90 percent of cigar consumers are occasional smokers, so why force them to buy a bunch of cigars at once when they only want one?" he added.

Discriminating Potential
Chris McCalla, legislative director of the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association, adds that increased taxes on tobacco products have already made single sales the only option for many consumers: "Legisla­tors keep raising the taxes on premium cigars until they are so expensive peo­ple can only buy one or two at a time, and now they want to ban the single sale of cigars. Ridiculous!" he said.

"The bottom line is that this is bad legislation that won’t do what it is in­tended to do — stop the use of marijuana...To deny anyone that pleasure [of smok­ing a cigar] would be like banning beer because someone uses it as a chaser for, say, a shot of bourbon," McCalla said.

There are also charges that legislation targeting single, cheap cigars — like the measure passed in Baltimore — discrimi­nates against poor, minority consumers who cannot afford premium cigars. Ac­cording to a 2007 study by the Baltimore Department of Health, Black & Mild ci­gars, made by John Middleton Co., are the preferred smoke of young adult urban African Americans, with 24 percent say­ing they had smoked at least one in the past 30 days.

Last year, Middleton joined fellow manufacturers Altadis U.S.A., Swedish Match North America, and Swisher International; Maryland distributor Cen­tury Distributors; and the CAA, in filing a suit aimed at blocking enforcement of the Prince George’s County law. Earlier, a Pennsylvania court struck down simi­lar legislation in Philadelphia.

"We believe there are other more ef­fective ways of advancing the general policy goals that motivated this law without penalizing adult cigar smokers who frequently purchase single cigars," said Craig Schwartz, Middleton’s gen­eral manager.

Schwartz said the company instead backs youth access prevention pro­grams, like those currently in use in convenience stores, as the best means of keeping kids from purchasing tobacco products.

The FDA Jumps In
Meanwhile, consideration of the legisla­tion by the D.C. Council is not the only tobacco-centric activity going on in Washington. The Food and Drug Ad­ministration, in its first exercise of new power over tobacco granted by Congress last summer, took another step in regu­lating tobacco by banning the sale of fruit-, candy- or clove-flavored smokes.

"Almost 90 percent of adult smokers start smoking as teenagers. These fla­vored cigarettes are a gateway for many children and young adults to become regular smokers," said FDA Commis­sioner Margaret Hamburg in a press release. Though the regulations affect different products, the goal, Hamburg said, is the same: "The FDA will utilize regulatory authority to reduce the bur­den of illness and death caused by to­bacco products to enhance our nation’s public health."

The slope, it seems, just keeps get­ting more slippery.

Scott Orr is a freelance writer based on Washington, D.C.