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Commentary: Which Side is Big Tobacco On?

18 Apr 2013

Those who hate all tobacco are constantly trying to equate premium cigars with “Big Tobacco,” which they view as an an evil not seen since the Galactic Empire in Star Wars (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away).

Which should, but won’t, make them feel a bit uncomfortable about being on the same side as Big Tobacco when it comes to FDA regulation of cigars. A recent article in The Hill makes it clear that when it comes to the bill to stop the FDA from expanding its oversight to include premium handmade cigars, the biggest of cigarette companies stands with the tobacco control groups that detest everything about Big Tobacco:

Cigar companies are going up against tobacco giant Altria, the parent company for Philip Morris USA, which backs expanded FDA oversight and opposes Posey’s legislation. “We believe cigars are a product that are made for adults, have health issues related to them, and have tobacco. We believe the FDA asserting its jurisdictional authority over them is appropriate,” said David Sylvia, a spokesman for Altria.

Altria, it’s worth noting, originally supported the original FDA bill to regulate tobacco because, according to Forbes, the bill “solidifies the position of the producer with the greatest market share—Altria—which makes 50% of all cigarettes in the U.S.”

If Big Tobacco is the unmitigated evil that anti-tobacco zealots say they are, then maybe they need to re-examine their position, which is now the same as the Marlboro Man.

My own view of so-called Big Tobacco is more nuanced. First off, I believe cigarettes, like cigars, should be a legal product which adults should be free to choose to consume. I’d concede that there was a time when the largest cigarettes companies probably misled the public about the health effects of their products. But that doesn’t change the fact that tobacco is and should be a legal product in a free society, or that every smoker now understands that there are serious risks to smoking, especially cigarettes. (In fact, studies suggest smokers overestimate the health effects of smoking.)

Which brings me back to the politics of Big Tobacco, cigars, and the FDA. If cigarette companies’ position is that the bill stopping the FDA from regulation cigars should be opposed because all tobacco should be free from FDA oversight and they want cigar smokers as an ally in that fight, then I’d have some sympathy.

In fact, ultimately I agree with that position while realizing that in the short term it is politically impossible. So the best position right now is articulated by Glynn Loope of Cigar Rights of America to The Hill: “When Congress passed the original Tobacco Control Act, it was really to address two primary points: youth access to tobacco and chemical addition. Premium cigars don’t meet that criteria.”

But that’s not the position of Philip Morris USA, which is the quintessential “Big Tobacco” company. Philip Morris lobbied for the FDA bill, which apparently they feel is best for their bottom line by stifling their competitors, and now they are seeking to force cigars under the same onerous regulations.

All of which is a long way of saying, the next time you talk with someone who opposes the “Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act” to repeal the FDA’s authority to regulate cigars, feel free to ask them why they are taking the side of Big Tobacco against the little guy.

-Patrick S

photo credit: FDA

Drew Estate