April 15, 2011 marked a special moment in the political history of the premium cigar industry. It was the day U.S. Congressman Bill Posey of Florida filed the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act for the first time. It was a spring day, almost five years ago to the day as I write this. He has done so now for four sessions of Congress.
What makes this act so unique is not just its purpose of protecting premium handmade cigars from draconian regulations proposed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, and not just to dramatize how the agency went well beyond Congressional intent in advancing the rule. It was that the very filing of the act marked the first time the premium cigar industry went on political offense.
Normally, and historically, the industry had to react to legislative threats. These ranged from local and state tax and smoking ban measures to the tax proposal to fund the federal State Childrenʼs Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which served as an industry wake-up call.
April 15, 2011 was different. It was the day premium cigar makers said, “We are different. We don’t deserve what they’re planning—and we’re not taking it lying down. It’s time to make our case.”
Since that day, 289 different members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 28 members of the U.S. Senate have signed legislation calling for an exemption for premium handmade cigars that meet a strict definition (over 60 of whom voted for the original Tobacco Control Act). More than 35 letters, either from individual members or joint letters, proclaiming support for this position have been sent to the former Administration, the new Administration and to multiple agencies within the federal government.
But what has been the result? Foes of this strategy say “not much,” questioning the expense and time into the effort. I beg to differ for one major reason—it created a standing record of legislators upon which to build a network of advocates that now know that we are different. This network can work to address issues well into the future, and can assist in conveying the serious concerns the industry has with the FDA regulatory process.
Without the process and strategy that has been executed over the last five years, we would not have known that the current Vice President of the United States, U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services and White House Director of the Office of Management & Budget could be allies, by virtue of signing onto this legislation during their service in the House of Representatives. Without the strategy of the last five years, we would not have known that Democrats and Republicans alike could come together not on a “tobacco bill,” but on a bill that has enabled the industry to articulate its small business, family-driven, artistic and cultural foundations.
This process has compelled the industry to also take a deeper look at itself. It has allowed for the accumulation of information virtually unrealized before on the economic significance of the sector, especially in key states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Louisiana and Nevada, and the base of brand owners that are incorporated in California, Texas, New Jersey, Kentucky and Virginia.
It has allowed for the building of coalitions nonexistent before that April day of 2011, with special interests never before approached by the industry for political support ranging from chambers of commerce, retail merchants organizations, local governments, mayors, farmers, ports and truckers, just to name a few.
Conveying the threat of the regulations to members of Congress has also allowed for the discussion on the economic significance of the industry in the very economically and politically fragile region of Latin America, where investment and employment by the industry directly contributes to stability of governments and families alike.
Stories have long circulated about the effort to mitigate the threat of the SCHIP taxes. Rocky Patel and Jeff Borysiewicz have stated that they hit the halls of Congress, “talking to anyone willing to listen.” It’s come a long way since 2007.
Now, language has been included in four appropriations measures in the U.S. House of Representatives proclaiming that premium cigars are unique and that they are not what Congress intended when addressing tobacco control. In April of 2016, the House actually said, “None of these funds made available may be used to finalize, implement, administer or enforce the proposed rule…if such rule applies to traditional large and premium cigars.” That’s progress: Now we just have to get it through the Senate and off to The White House.
There are legislative measures that take years to work through the process, if you can call it that. Recently I had that discussion with some advocates for other causes—covering the elimination of the “death tax” and regulations on the energy sector, as well as the eternal debates on health care, education and tax reform. Premium cigars are now in that mix.
It all goes back to the proverbial Washington statement, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Now that the premium cigar sector has a standing presence in the halls of Congress, it will always be “at the table.”
The issue is patience. The level of nervousness and anticipation within the industry due to the impending rules is quite understandable. However, 2017 represents the most decisive moment since this journey began to protect this industry from the heavy hand of an unsympathetic bureaucracy.
Whether through the Administration, Congress or the courts, the virtue of a five-year legislative and advocacy movement will hopefully prove to be a most wise investment.
– Contributed by Glynn Loope, Executive Director of Cigar Rights of America
This story first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details