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Stogie Commentary: Cigar Labeling…What’s in a Name?

8 Dec 2010

Like most hobbies, there’s plenty of jargon when it comes to cigars. Vintage, puro, hand-rolled, aged, hand-bunched, maduro, oscuro, natural, bundled, mixed-filler, short-filler, entubar…There are so many terms out there, even the most well-informed consumers are likely to have trouble keeping track of them all.

And when these terms appear on a box of a cigars or in a cigar catalog, it’s often hard to hard to separate the marketing hyperbole from the facts. Does the handmade cigar industry need better labeling? If so, who should decide what those standards are and how they might be enforced?

A recent article in Wine Spectator (sister publication of Cigar Aficionado) got me thinking about these questions. It discusses the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) recent call for comments on proposed wine labeling rules that would dictate under what conditions wine makers can include certain terms on their labels.

Many of the terms specifically mentioned—estate, estates, estate-grown, reserve, old vine, barrel-fermented, proprietor’s blend, single vineyard, old clone, vineyard select, select harvest, bottle-aged, and barrel select—are quite similar to terms used in cigar making. And their cigar counterparts can be just as confusing. Vintage, for example, can refer to almost anything: the wrapper’s age, the harvest of tobacco that makes up the cigar, the year the cigar was made, or some combination of those definitions. Most of the time, it’s enough to drive a consumer crazy.

So should cigar smoker’s call in the TTB and demand standardization? Quite the opposite. Cigar enthusiasts should be weary of further government intervention.

As the Wine Spectator article notes, “small wineries could be hurt by the costs of complying with new or retooled regulations in general.” Similarly, tracking the exact age of every tobacco leaf in every cigar could impose huge costs on smaller boutique cigar makers, stifling the innovative blending that smaller cigar makers bring to the market. Besides, the FDA is already breathing down the neck of cigar makers, and the cigar industry already has to deal with enough TTB regulations.

Absent government intervention, there can still be more disclosure about the contents of the cigars we purchase. There are plenty of private organizations—Tobacconist University and the Cigar Association of America come to mind—that could provide standards for labeling that would give cigar consumers the information we want.

Cigar makers who want to participate in this system could voluntarily adhere to a set of standards, agreeing to only use terms like vintage, puro, or single region when they meet the agreed-upon definition. Those who feel such standards would be too burdensome won’t be coerced into participating. A simple seal can be displayed only by those who participate.

Such a system would let cigar consumers know what participating cigar makers mean when they use terms that are otherwise vague. And, more importantly, smokers would know to take the claims of cigar makers who don’t participate with an appropriate grain of salt.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

7 Responses to “Stogie Commentary: Cigar Labeling…What’s in a Name?”

  1. dmjones1009 Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 3:11 am #

    Government regulations are often backed by large companies for the simple fact that they can easily absorb the cost of the regs, while their smaller competitors cannot…therefore, the government helps to run the small businesses out of the market with little cost and effort by the big boys. For that reason, I think bringing in the FDA or some other government agency would be a mistake here.

    Is there a need for better and more accurate naming conventions and packaging? Sure, but let it be through a private organization like you suggested. And if that happens, we all need to support that effort with our voices and our dollars.

  2. George E. Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 4:46 am #

    I, too, would like to see more standardization and definition in the terms used for cigars. My vote for the way to do it would be a trade group, such as IPCPR. Of course, I don't think it'll ever happen, in part because of all the loose terms and names already in use that wouldn't comply with almost any system you could conceive. And with an industry in which major players can't even get all their cigars on their Web sites, I'm not anticipating much.

  3. Cigar Seeker Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 5:15 am #

    I too would like to see more standardization in cigar terminology. But as a libertarian, I shudder at the idea of government intervention. I very much like the idea of an industry-based set of standards with a compliance label as you suggest. Good idea!

  4. st Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    The problem is, who polices adherence to the labeling standards? If paying a couple of grand to get the sticker helps your marketing and brings in extra revenue, then everyone is going to pay it and get the sticker. So what's to stop a manufacturer from certifying, and then ignoring the standards, by whomever propagated? Who within the marketplace is going to take on the chore and expense of auditing compliance? No one.

    My point isn't that the government should do it (they won't anyway; the wine standards are useful in marketing a product, and the government won't help tobacco market itself), it's that a private version of a "standard" is unlikely to mean much after a couple of years. The fact is, if a manufacturer believes that providing more detail about their materials and methods will help them market, they should just do it. People will judge their credibility based upon the credibility of their brand.

  5. Brian E Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    I have mixed feelings about standardizing cigar product language. Yes, I think it would be helpful to find out what kind of tobacco makes up a cigar, how old it is, etc. which would help us consumers shop.

    However at the same time it doesn't really give any indication of cigar quality and can lead both people *and* manufacturers to put too much emphasis on specifications product labeling. Buyers would be more inclined to buy a cigar that is certified as "vintage" or "aged" over a cigar that is not, even if it is a better cigar. This would in turn pressure manufacturers to try and get more certifications for any given product line, perhaps sacrificing quality in order to meet better specs. Just because tobacco is 10 years old and puro does not mean it is any good.

    This is very similar to the problem with products such as motor oil and tires. Specifications are nice to have, but they can only tell you so much.

  6. Jake Friday, December 10, 2010 at 11:26 am #

    Great story and great suggestion about a non-gov't, voluntary labeling system. It would be interesting to see which cigar manufacturers would follow it and which wouldn't. There's a steakhouse here with a sign that reads, "Fresh Steaks Cut Daily!" but from working there years ago I know that doesn't mean the steak you're GETTING was cut that day… Just an example of one of the many loopholes in our society. In the end it all depends on the consumer to discern fact from fiction.

  7. craig childs Friday, December 10, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    I am in favor of an industry standard for cigar labeling, but not govt regulation. On each box of cigars, I would like to know:

    1. Year of Harvest (youngest leaf used in blend)

    2. "Born on date" – i.e., date cigars were put in box

    3. Blender name

    4. Factory name

    5. Were artificial dyes or chemicals used during the construction of the product (esp. maduros)

    6. % long leaf (versus short filler)