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Cigar News: The FDA is Two Small Steps from Banning Handmade Cigars

7 Mar 2013

Jacob Grier (writer, cocktail expert, cigar smoker, and a friend of this site) has a must-read article at The Atlantic‘s website about the FDA’s approval process, or lack thereof, for new tobacco products. Essentially, the FDA is supposed to be “regulating” cigarettes but instead is blocking all new products from reaching the market.EPCAging-room

The article describes the impossible delays and bureaucratic hurdles (over 1,000 new products are pending review but none have been approved) thrown up by the FDA under it’s authority under the Tobacco Control Act of 2009, particularly the story of Hestia Tobacco, which tried for over a year to get FDA approval for a new organic cigarette. And while the focus of the article is on cigarettes, a careful reading of Grier’s piece contains some grave warnings for cigars.

Repeatedly during the story Hestia Tobacco founder David Sley describes attempt after attempt at getting a straightforward answer from the FDA, only to be stymied repeatedly. One passage in particular, regarding aging tobacco in cedar, has important implications for cigars:

Also in October 2011, Sley asked whether his plan to age tobacco in cedar, a common practice in the cigar industry, would violate the Tobacco Control Act’s ban on characterizing flavors. David Ashley, director of the Office of Science at the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, replied by merely quoting the statute without clarification. Despite multiple follow-ups, Sley still has not received an answer. In an interview in February, Ashley said that he had not thought about the question. A spokesperson for the FDA has declined any further comment on the issue.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to estimate that the vast majority of handmade cigars are “aged” in cedar in one way or another (think cedar-lined aging rooms, cedar cigar boxes, and cedar sleeves) because cedar’s qualities (especially Spanish cedar) make it ideal for storing cigars. That means that a ruling by the FDA that aging tobacco in cedar violates statutory language against “characterizing flavors” could be one step away from a near total ban on cigars.

And every indication is that other step is only weeks away. As the article notes, the FDA plans to introduce its first rules on cigars by April. Many have speculated that this could include an extension to cigars of the flavor ban that makes flavored cigarettes (other than menthol) illegal. A group of Senators even tried to mandate such a flavored cigar ban last year by attaching it to an appropriations bill.

With the FDA unwilling (after being asked multiple times over the course of 17 months) to foreclose cedar aging being a violation of the flavor ban that is central to the FDA’s tobacco regulatory regime, the coming FDA rules on cigars could leave the FDA dangerously close to banning very common practices fundamental to the creation of the premium handmade cigars you smoke.

-Patrick S

photo credit: EPC

Drew Estate