Between 1920 and 1933, America experienced the renowned period that was known as Prohibition. With the grassroots movement against alcohol led by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, the United States government enacted its sweeping ban on the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Even though the federal government did not prohibit private ownership and consumption, some local and state governments went as far as banning actual possession.
Flash forward to June 22, 2009, when President Barack Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sweeping regulatory power over all things tobacco. Although the FDA is prohibited from creating any outright ban on a product, the regulatory agency can create barriers that make the introduction of new products virtually impossible. However, there is a little-known codicil in the act that gives local and state governments the authority to implement more stringent ordinances and legislation on tobacco products, especially in the arena of sales and distribution restrictions.
Just like the Jan. 16, 1919, ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution during the Prohibition era, or the June 22, 2009, signing of the Tobacco Control Act, perhaps June 4, 2019, should also be enshrined in the annals of nanny state history. It was on that evening that the city council of Beverly Hills, California, became the first jurisdiction in America to ban the sale of tobacco within its community.
Twenty-eight local businesses that sell perfectly legal tobacco products will now be prohibited from doing so. In many cigar circles, most know that the city council of Beverly Hills heard the plea to exempt two premium cigar shops as well as a private cigar club. For that, we are grateful—concerned about the attack on free markets, private property rights and personal choice—but grateful. Cigar Rights of America (CRA) endorsed the request for those exemptions and released a petition to the city council making that request as well.
The most renowned plea for exemption came from former California governor and cigar enthusiast Arnold Schwarzenegger. Writing for the Grand Havana Room cigar club, Schwarzenegger stated that the club “provides a treasured home away from home where community members, businessmen and businesswomen, artists, authors, educators, filmmakers, priests, pastors, rabbis, doctors, lawyers and political leaders all gather, and where they can share the company of one another over the enjoyment of a fine cigar.” Schwarzenegger also noted that the club was “an altogether rare venue … where the sharing of a meal, drink and premium cigar promotes camaraderie, relaxation and the healthy exchange of ideas and experiences.”
To me, I guess that makes virtually every cigar shop and lounge in the nation a “rare venue”—327 million people in America, maybe 3 million occasional cigar consumers, 2,000 premium cigar shops and even fewer than that with a lounge or cigar bar. I would say they are each rare, unique and should be recognized as nothing less than a sanctuary for those among us who wish to gather for such moments as Schwarzenegger described.
We would like to use Schwarzenegger’s message as a form letter for such battles confronted by every cigar shop across the nation because our prediction is that Beverly Hills just set a horrible national precedent for local governments across the country to entertain similar ordinances. And it has begun.
On a 4-1 vote within a week of, and based upon the action in Beverly Hills, the city council of Manhattan Beach, California, started the process of drafting its own tobacco sales ban. Councilman Steve Napolitano called it “a logical next step” following banning smoking in all public places. Of course, governments have a creative way of defining “public place” to mean, you know, a private place of business.
Bad ideas have a way of spreading fast in the arena of tobacco politics. Especially at this juncture, with the legislative plate being full for the industry with state and national issues, the last thing America’s cigar shops (and consumers) need is a city-hall-to-city-hall slate of proposals and ordinances where free enterprise has to be defended, proverbial exemptions have to be justified, choices limited, entrepreneurship stifled and a new era of prohibition launched.
CRA is currently working with a coalition of cigar shops in the St. Louis, Missouri, region in an effort to prevent a smoking ban due to the consistent threat of a public referendum. We call it “Operation Sanctuary” because America’s cigar shops are truly becoming the last refuge from the agenda of the nanny state.
For them, the cigar shops and lounges of America, these “rare venues” that offer camaraderie, conversation and relaxation need to be defended in a manner that makes them nonnegotiable in such battles—that local and state governments will not ban the enjoyment of premium cigars in such defined places of business, nor will they threaten the sale of great premium handmade cigars. All it takes is one Michael Bloomberg to enable “The Beverly Hills Model” to be bankrolled and spread across the nation, and the next wave of battles will truly begin.
Perhaps it’s time to use some language of the U.S. Constitution for our side for a change: Congress shall make no law respecting or prohibiting the right of the people to peaceably assemble. The freedom of assembly seems central to the passion for cigars.
This story first appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Contributed by J. Glynn Loope, executive director of Cigar Rights of America.