Independence Day Reflections: The Fight for Premium Tobacco

We’ve been busy in the store and online this week as people stop in to gather “essential supplies” for their 4th of July gatherings.  It seems fitting to honor this holiday that celebrates our nation’s independence from British rule (and tyranny in the form of taxation), with current information on the cigar and pipe industry’s own fight for independence– a war that sadly can never be completely won… but our ability to fight every battle grows stronger.

Cigar and pipe smokers have an appreciation of enjoyment that few others understand. What better way to pass a summer evening than in the company of great friends (or even alone with a book) great cigar or pipe in hand? The burning tobacco leaves provide us with a means of relaxation, of contemplation and reverie that aficionados hold sacred.

If only those who stand so firmly and blindly against tobacco of any kind could understand… In their fight against the cigarette and vape industries, premium cigar and pipe tobacco is automatically lumped in. It’s on us, all of us— consumers, retailers and manufacturers to drive awareness and advocate to protect our rights.  Representing less than one half of one percent of the tobacco industry, our voice is small— but mighty!  Want to help the fight? Read on…

In May, I was asked to present to Congress as part of a panel including Tony Gomez from La Flor Dominicana and Mike Copperman, Executive Director of Cigar Rights of America (the three of us are pictured above, enjoying cigars after the meeting on the “Speaker’s Porch” of the U.S. Capitol building). The afternoon was hosted at the U.S. Capitol by the Congressional Cigar Caucus, a bipartisan group of House members who not only appreciate a great cigar, but who are willing to dedicate time to learn about the challenges facing our industry and are helpful advocates in the fight to mitigate these threats.

Threats to our industry, and our rights to smoke premium tobacco are evolving and will likely never cease. A few current examples:

  • Despite our historic win against the FDA last year, the case is currently under appeal. That means more litigation, more time commitment from advocates across the industry, and of course, more money being spent to protect our right to enjoy a handmade premium cigar.
  • In Massachusetts, the town of Brookline has passed a generational smoking ban— meaning that those born after Jan. 1, 2000 can never buy a tobacco product in their lifetime. Imagine being 50 years old, and told you can’t legally buy a cigar? Other towns in Massachusetts are considering the same measure, and this bad idea will only spread. (CA and HI have floated the same and were defeated, but will try again)
  • The state of New York has a 75% tobacco tax… and a 14% tax on cannabis.
  • Instagram does not allow us to “boost” a post, or link to our online store because we sell tobacco. (You follow us on Instagram, right?)

Whether led by the federal government, a federal agency, a state legislature, a local board of health or a corporate policy, the threats to our continued ability to enjoy premium cigars and pipes never cease.

There are three key industry organizations that are dedicated to protecting our rights:

  1. Premium Cigar Association (PCA): The Premium Cigar Association’s membership is open to retailers, manufacturers and industry partners and its mission is to protect and grow the business of specialty tobacco retailing.  You’ll often hear us refer to “the trade show”— the annual convention we attend to see what’s new from all of the industry’s manufacturers.  The Premium Cigar Association is the organization that puts on that show, and has numerous resources dedicated to advocacy work at the federal and state levels.  I am proud to serve as an elected member of the Board of Directors of PCA, and follow in the footsteps of Georgetown Tobacco owner and President, David Berkebile, who served for years on the same board and also as its President.
  2. Cigar Rights of America– is the first and only consumer-based, public advocacy group fighting to protect your right to enjoy premium, hand-rolled cigars.        Many of your favorite cigar manufacturers serve on the board of CRA, and they are headquartered not far from here in Alexandria, VA.
  3. Cigar Association of America: CAA members come from all sectors of the industry and include manufacturers of both hand-made premium cigars and machine-made cigars.

In other recent activity on Capitol Hill, I was able to listen an expert panel focused on advocacy for premium cigars hosted by the Women of PCA.  Two of the panelists were young women working as Legislative Directors in Congressional offices on Capitol Hill.  While their advice was tailored to an audience of brick and mortar retailers, there were several key take aways that I think can benefit everyone interested in advocacy for any issue and protecting our industry:

  • Know your State and Local Representatives:  (You can locate your legislators here on PCA’s website)
    • “Behind the ivory towers are real people who care…”
    • “It’s less like House of Cards and more like Veep.”
    • “Know the power of your vote. If your zip code is in our district, we will do what we can for you.”
    • Don’t discount the staffers. They are young, working long hours, and if you can get one of them to listen to you, they can absolutely help shape policy.
    • “Don’t wait to have the conversation…” Having established relationships is critical in having your perspective heard and acted upon.
    • “Understand how your issue relates to the majority…” For example, while some may not have our same love of premium cigars, the majority of Senators, Representatives and their staffs pay close attention to national security concerns.  The potential loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in Central America if the cigar industry is decimated has a direct tie to our national security.
    • “Activists are the people who stand outside with a sign. Advocates have a strategy…” (I really like that quote…)

What else can you do to help?

  • Join Cigar Rights of America this is a great way to stay up to date on issues facing our industry and help support our cause. Georgetown Tobacco is a proud member as a “GREAT AMERICAN CIGAR SHOP®” and I annually renew my individual membership.
  • Donate to the PCA Industry Defense Fund: Donations from businesses and individuals to the Industry Defense Fund will be used to fund initiatives like the litigation needed to defeat the FDA’s appeal, and any future litigation.

With summer fully in swing and an election in November, there may not be a lot of business getting done on Capitol Hill right now, but the work we do today paves the way forward. As we celebrate our 60th anniversary, we look forward to the next 60 years with your support. Happy Independence Day!