By SUE WADE
Members practice their own form of meditation at Havana Tranquility, Punta Gorda’s VIP cigar lounge.
“You’ve had a long day at work,” said its founder, Dr. Emil Dameff. “Your blood pressure is up, your mind is racing. You come in, sit down, select a cigar, and the ritual begins: Taking the wrapper off, smelling the cigar, cutting the end, toasting the foot, taking those first puffs. You talk with your friends, you relax. And you know what? Your blood pressure goes down, your mind clears, your stress level decreases.”
Leaning back and taking a leisurely puff, owner Dr. Joseph Ravid said, “This is my Xanax.”
But the pleasurable pastime of enjoying premium handmade cigars seems, to them and to others, to be under attack in the United States.
“It’s Prohibition 2.0,” said Ravid.
Aficionados, cigar makers and retailer/lounges like Fedora’s Cigar Bar and Havana Tranquility in Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte’s Tobacco Locker and North Port Cigars are feeling the heat of federal regulatory scrutiny. They’re hoping to exempt premium cigars from rules applied to such nicotine delivery systems as cigarettes and e-cigarettes, which can fall into the hands of under-age consumers.
FDA regulations, said Dameff, “won’t stop consumers from being able to purchase cigars. Anyone will still be able to buy them online from other places in the world. Regulations will apply only to U.S.-based sales, which hurts the U.S. retailer and gives the rest of the world a step up.”
Ravid added, “The small brick-and-mortar American retailer won’t be able to compete. A lot of places are going to go out of business.”
A cottage industry under the microscope
Cigar making has long been a cottage, artisanal industry.
From seed to cigar box, more than 300 hands touch each “stick.” Sometimes, pairs of workers — a buncher and a roller — hand-roll 400 cigars at a time in Central American factories steeped in sweet tobacco aroma.
A far cry from convenience store cigarillos, these premium stogies are housed in humidors.
According to a 2017 study, most premium cigar consumers average 35 to 54 years of age.
Jason Reinbolt of Venice, cigar enthusiast and blogger at the new Frugal Cigar Life, started smoking cigars in the wake of federal regulations that halted U.S. import of his favorite Dunhill pipe tobacco.
He hopes the same thing won’t happen to his favorite boutique cigar brands.
“Some of the most interesting cigars are from places producing limited quantities,” he said. “Hand-rolling gives you a consistent burn, a better taste. You’re in it for that experience, tasting the different notes in the cigar and how it pairs with different drinks and foods.
“But unless a cigar manufacturer has the funds to meet new federal testing requirements, it’s going to go belly up. It would be like shutting down microbreweries and leaving only big-name beer brands.”
“The FDA is proposing testing each new blend,” said Dameff. “Say you have a tobacco plant with top, bottom and middle. You have two leaves from the top of this plant from this farm, two leaves from the middle from that farm. If you change those two leaves to two and half, it becomes a new entity requiring approval. But it’s all just tobacco leaf, no additives, no different chemical composition.
“We’ve heard estimates between $150,000 and $250,000 to apply for and test a new blend that’s completely untestable.”
“There’s no test. It’s theoretically impossible,” said Ravid. “And it may take them up to a year to approve a new blend.”
Blowback from the cigar industry
Rocky Patel, founder of Bonita Springs-based Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, took immediate issue with regulatory controls for testing and packaging premium cigars, which, he said, would raise prices and destroy one of the reasons people buy them. With one regulation calling for warning labels covering 30 percent of the box, cigar-boxes-as-art-form could become antique-shop relics.
According to Ravid, “They’re also proposing that humidor windows like ours be blacked out. You couldn’t go in and shop for cigars. Consumers would pick their cigars from a catalog.”
In a 2018 interview with Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, Patel argued that the FDA’s well-meaning effort to curb tobacco use by minors had morphed into a one-size-fits-all approach.
Patel said, “The FDA didn’t take the opportunity to investigate and understand the nature of the premium cigar industry. Basically it’s family-owned businesses that have been making cigars over decades. The retailers are main street mom-and-pop industries that are selling premium cigars to adults. … (Cigars are) literally enjoyed like a single-malt glass of scotch or a fine bottle of wine. You certainly don’t see kids sitting around the schoolyard chain-smoking cigars.”
In an April Fox News report, Eric Newman, owner and president of the 124-year-old J.C. Newman Cigar Company of Tampa, said, “Our company has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cuban Embargo, but proposed FDA regulations would be the nail on the coffin for our factory and 135 employees.”
Democratic Tampa Representative Kathy Castor and Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio have both introduced bills to exempt premium cigars from regulation.
Meanwhile, the Cigar Association of America, the Premium Cigar Association (PCA; formerly IPCPR, International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association) and Cigar Rights of America joined forces to file a lawsuit against the FDA.
Local cigar retailers: Where there’s smoke …
Lynn and Bill Davies, proprietors of Port Charlotte’s Tobacco Locker, are in a unique situation. The Tobacco Locker carries 2.5 million cigars, selling both onsite and in an online store. Proposed legislation banning online sales by U.S. retailers could cripple its business.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Lynn. “Meanwhile, we’ll just keep carrying on and pushing our legislators.”
Any change in regulations could also be significant for North Port Cigars, a cigar lounge whose walk-in humidor is one of the largest in the area, carrying 60% big premium names and 40% boutiques.
Assistant manager Joe Sweany isn’t optimistic about the FDA’s impact on the shop’s future.
“There’s probably going to be fallout,” he said. “But there’s not much you can do. It is what it is.”
Don Young at Port Charlotte’s Gulf Coast Cigar Company, which sells many boutique and hard-to-find premium cigars, said, “What’s been passed so far hasn’t affected us much yet. Here in Florida, Senator Rubio and others have really slowed down the FDA’s progress, because it affects the state economy.”
“It’s an abyss of unknown,” said Dameff. “Regulation is coming, but we don’t know how it’s going to go.”
Lisa Pervin, co-owner with Tom Foti of Fedora’s Cigar Bar in Punta Gorda, felt energized after attending the PCA’s annual trade show.
She said, “The fallout, if the FDA gets what it wants, could be less access to certain cigars produced after 2007, higher taxes and more costly cigars.
“The worst case? Cigars are not an inexpensive hobby to begin with. If the FDA proceeds, cigar prices are going to rise to the point of being cost-prohibitive for the consumer. We’re all guessing $1 to $4 more per cigar, potentially taking an $8 cigar to $12 or $16.
“The PCA is encouraging retailers and consumers to get involved at the grassroots level in taking the message to legislators. Many people think their voice doesn’t count, but it absolutely makes a difference. I have to be optimistic, because this is our future.
“If regulation happens, at least we’ll know we put up a good fight.”