HOLMBERG: Regulations could make fine cigars go up in smoke

Posted at 12:45 AM, Jun 21, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-21 07:18:18-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)- Proposed Food and Drug Administration regulations targeting cigar products could devastate not only the premium cigar industry, but the countries that grow, blend, roll and export the much sought-after products aficionados say.

For instance, you wouldn’t be able to go into a tobacco shop and stroll through the humidor, handling and sniffing cigars from around the world.

“They would come in and potentially look in a catalog and go, hey I want that one,” said George “Shorty” Koebel, owner of Havana Connections in Short Pump.

The regulations could also eliminate single cigar sales, a staple of the business across the country.

“I don’t like it, bottom line,” said Nick Hazly, a cigar aficionado who also works in the business. “I just takes away from your choice, man.”

The list of proposed regulations is long and well-known to many cigar lovers.  Bob Markie, sharing an afternoon stogie  with the crew at Havana Connections, had the regs on his phone and read some of them out loud.

“Ban on walk-in humidors, self-serve cigar displays,” Markie said. “Mail order cigar sales, limit cigar marketing and advertising . . . flavored cigars . . . limit special-release, small-batch cigars, limits on nicotine levels in cigars near zero. Well, that’s going to be fun.”

Product promoter Matt Anderson was handing out goodies Wednesday at Havana Connections.  “So tonight we’re having a cigar event and everybody who participates with a purchase is going to get a free cigar. They might win a prize. And with the FDA regulations, that’s going to go away completely.”

These smokers are a tiny subset of the tobacco world, most of them not addicted to the product, but to the ritual -  to the small but diverse and oh-so world-wise cigar network. They are the smoking equivalent of gourmands.

“You won’t find a 12-year-old on a corner smoking a seven dollar Davidoff or a 20-dollar Padron,” Koebel said.

But plenty of kids are smoking manufactured and flavored cigars and cigarillos sold at most convenience stores. Some are often used for smoking marijuana after their leaf shells are emptied out.

The problem for cigar buffs is the proposed regulations don’t differentiate between the premium cigars and the el-cheapos.

“There are cigarettes and OTP – other tobacco products,” Koebel said, adding there’s a push for a bill to separate premium, hand-rolled cigars from the rest, with more than 200 co-sponsors in Congress .

But in a statement to the Associated Press,  Altria, owner of the company that makes the popular Black and Milds cigarillos, said any regulations “should be science-based and apply to all cigar manufacturers.”

If the regulations pass like that, when the smoke clears, there a going to be a big, fat list of victims left dumped on the ash heap.

“It puts a lot of people out of business,” said cigar lover Bob Markie at Havana Connections. “Not only these guys, but the Dominican Republic probably makes 50 percent of their income off cigars.”

Not to mention Cuba, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Jim Kosch, manager of Old Virginia Tobacco in Carytown, said “a lot of people don’t realize the premium cigar business is primarily a mom and pop business.”

Each manufacturer around the world is hands-on, literally, he said. It’s tobacco in the raw. Their distinctive blends are family secrets, sometimes carefully guarded for generations.

Some fear the new regulations could even force them to reveal those secrets.

But even though the premium cigar-smoking community is a small one, it is not without influence. Presidents, other  top politicians, news makers and newsmen throughout history have enjoyed a fine cigar - hence the strong support for keeping them burning.