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Commentary: The Truth About Cigar Studies

18 Nov 2014

FDA-cigars-large

By now, you’ve probably heard or read about the findings of a new long-term study of cigar smoking that generated headlines like this one from Fox News: “Cigars just as harmful to health as cigarettes, study says.” Well, don’t toss your Davidoffs in the dustbin just yet.

A closer look inside the numbers, along with some helpful responses from the study’s lead researcher, show that the results aren’t nearly that clear for those of us who enjoy premium, hand-rolled, all-tobacco cigars.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the study made no distinction between those who smoke machine-made cigars and those who smoke premium cigars. In fact, that information wasn’t even collected in the survey of 25,522 subjects for the 1999-2012 National Health Nutrition and Examination Survey, Dr. Jiping Chen, an epidemiologist in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products, told me in an email.

Consequently, there was also no consideration of differences in smoking, such as inhaling/not inhaling or the frequency of consumption, Dr. Chen said. “No information was collected in the study on the types of cigars smoked or reasons why cigars were smoked.”

So, someone who sucks down a half-dozen White Owls a day is a “cigar smoker,” the same as someone who lights up an Arturo Fuente Hemingway once a week. “All cigar smokers were treated as a single group,” Dr. Chen said of the survey that was the basis for the cigar study.

This is important because, without getting overly technical, the study compared levels of five “biomarkers”—substances scientists use to measure things like disease or environmental exposure—found in cigar smokers and non-smokers. To get the measurements for cigar smokers, she said, researchers took “the average levels of biomarkers of all cigar smokers.”

Now, to put that in perspective, bear in mind there are roughly 350 million premium cigars sold annually in the United States. Machine-made cigars are sold in the billions. In other words, the premium cigar market is just a tiny fraction of the cigar market.

So it stands to reason that the cigar-smoking group in the study would be vastly tilted toward those who smoke machine-made cigars, and it’s also as likely that an overwhelming percentage of them utilize cigars as do those who smoke cigarettes—as a nicotine delivery system, not for enjoyment, as do most premium-cigar smokers.

Averaging things like this can be dangerous. If, for example, you take the average of Bill Gates’ assets and my assets, we both appear to be very wealthy men.

One other point from the research that I find worth noting is the fact that there was no assessment of the impact of the 2009 SCHIP tax increases. Those undoubtedly led an unknown number of cigarette smokers to turn to machine-made “cigars” because they were taxed at a lower rate and offered a cheaper alternative. To my mind, while these people may now be classified as cigar smokers, they’re really cigarette smokers under a different name.

This contention was at least partly supported, I think, by findings that cigar smokers who were former cigarette smokers had higher levels of the two biomarkers found only in tobacco than did those who hadn’t smoked cigarettes before.

Now, let’s be honest. I don’t think anyone could reasonably dispute the notion that if you smoke cigars like cigarettes you’re almost certainly engaging in the same highly risky behavior as a cigarette smoker. And I can’t imagine that, in this day and age, that would surprise anybody. But that isn’t even remotely the way nearly all of us who smoke premium cigars actually smoke them. We don’t inhale, we don’t smoke all day long, and we aren’t addicted to nicotine.

We do recognize that there is some added danger to smoking premium cigars, but we also know that it is relatively small, and it’s a risk we’re willing to take. Just as we willingly take many other risks in our lives to do things we enjoy.

And as the FDA continues to consider its position on regulating cigars—and whether to grant an exemption for premium cigars—the distinctions I’ve pointed out could make a world of difference. It would be more than a shame for this research to help derail the efforts to secure that exemption because I believe it clearly isn’t applicable.

One bright spot in all this is that the very helpful FDA press officer who helped arrange my email exchange with Dr. Chen told me she will forward this to those involved in the consideration of cigar regulations.

Hopefully, they’ll read it and reach the right conclusion.

-George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Where Are You, Cigar Lounges?

12 Nov 2014

Winter is coming. For those who don’t relish braving the harsh outdoor elements, the season is a stark reminder of the scarcity of indoor locales in which to enjoy a fine cigar.

Government-imposed smoking bans have outlawed many bars, restaurants, and other establishments from offering cigar-friendly accommodations. In certain municipalities, private residences in multi-unit buildings have even been targeted. The result? In the winter, a multitude of cigar smokers must either curtail their cigar consumption until the weather improves; smoke out in the cold; build some kind of cigar sanctuary at their home, if possible; or find a welcoming cigar lounge, however far away.

Cigar Masters

The latter can be surprisingly challenging. Depending on your region, your options may be extremely limited. My work-related travels regularly take me far away from my cozy den. When they do—especially in the winter—I’m confronted with the same challenge: How do I find a convenient, well-appointed lounge where I can fire up a good smoke?

I’ve written before about some of my criteria for optimal cigar enjoyment, as well as how to spot a good lounge/tobacconist. Generally, I’m looking for a welcoming environment with plenty of space, a good selection of cigars at fair prices, and the ability to enjoy an adult beverage with my cigar (either purchased at the lounge, or BYOB).

Sometimes, depending on where I am, I’ll need to drive 30 to 60 minutes or more just to find a suitable spot. A good example: Last week I was in Hartford, Connecticut—the sort of city that has plenty of business travelers (think insurance and finance) for whom a cigar lounge would be a wonderful refuge after a day full of meetings. Sadly, the only cigar shop in town closes early and doesn’t have much space. So I find myself having to drive to New Haven to visit The Owl Shop (which is a lot of fun, by the way).

In other instances, I’ll find myself near an upscale, members-only cigar lounge where my only option would be to pay a $50 entrance fee. I’ve never actually done this, mind you, since I can’t reconcile having to pay $50 for the right to buy a smoke and sit in a chair.

True, some places have great cigar lounges (I’m looking at you, Cigar Masters in Providence, Rhode Island). But with premium cigar consumption—and bourbon consumption—on the upswing, I’m still amazed at how hard it can be to locate a suitable lounge in some areas. And it seems like every good lounge I visit is always packed with people paying good money for premium cocktails and higher-priced cigars.

The good news? Thanks to mobile technology, social media, etc. it’s easier than ever to find the nearest smoke-friendly option. It’s just unfortunate the “nearest” often isn’t all that near.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Cigar Masters

 

Commentary: Are Proposed FDA Regulations Pushing Industry Consolidation?

7 Oct 2014

Damocles-Westall

Finalized FDA rules for regulating cigars are many months away, but they still hang over the industry like the Sword of Damocles.

It’s safe to say that looming FDA regulation is encouraging industry consolidation. The risk involved in developing new cigar lines is no longer just that consumers won’t buy enough of your cigars at a price where you can turn a profit.

The bigger risk now is the government might render your product illegal, or at least subject it to an incredibly burdensome, lengthy, and expensive approval process. So if you don’t want to bet the house on the FDA rules not being overly burdensome, now is the time to sell.

Surely impending regulation isn’t the only reason the Toraño and Leccia Tobacco lines were acquired by General Cigar, but it had to have been a factor. I’ve heard Toraño has had success with its value-oriented lines Brigade and Loyal. These are the lines most likely to be hit by FDA rules, even if they include a more reasonable price exemption than originally proposed.

Sam Leccia was critical in developing innovative cigars like Nub and Cain for Oliva, before splitting with the company in a legal spat that went ugly. His new cigars included Leccia Black, which was one of the first cigars to sport fire-cured tobacco. The problem is, under an FDA approval regime, innovation is a risk that would make potential approvals more difficult. (Whether the use of fire-cured tobacco would count as a characterizing flavor under proposed FDA rules is an open question.) And the less money you have for scientists, lawyers, and lobbyists to push a new product through the approval process, the bigger the risk it is.

Which brings us back to General Cigar and other large companies (Altadis USA, Davidoff) who might be buyers. While they all oppose FDA regulation and would likely feel its bottom-line effects, large companies are nearly always better able to adapt to government regulation than their smaller competitors. (Sadly, this is why cigarette giant Phillip Morris broke from the rest of the industry to back FDA tobacco regulations to begin with.)

With the rumor mill churning about other possible consolidations, it’s fair to ask if this is positive or negative for the industry. While initial reactions to a smaller company being bought by a larger one are usually negative, I’d argue on a whole the results have been good.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, cigar industry consolidation has often led to more competition. Large companies have every reason to continue and maintain popular brands they shell out big bucks for. While frequently the seller would use the proceeds to launch a new, smaller, and more niche company (think Ernesto Perez-Carrillo or Christian Eiroa) as their non-compete agreement runs out.

What’s worrisome to me is not that more small companies may be bought by larger ones. Rather, the concern is the talent being bought out may not choose to reinvest in the cigar industry because of FDA rules that favor big companies.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Wikipedia

Commentary: Smoking Older (Cigars)

23 Sep 2014

aging-cigars-rack

With the recent announcement about General Cigar acquiring Toraño’s brands, it seemed like the perfect time to light up the oldest cigar in my humidor: an Exodus 1959 Silver Edition Churchill from 2005.

I didn’t set out to age it. It’s just a remnant from a box I bought shortly after we moved to Florida that I never got around to smoking. There may even be one or two more that I just haven’t run across. Though I enjoyed the Silver a lot, it—like a lot of other smokes—simply fell off my radar as newer cigars came along.

So, how was it? What did all that time do?

Well, as I so often end up with aged cigars, I’m not really sure. Obviously, I like the line. Back in 2006, I gave another Silver vitola four stogies. I liked this one, too. I just cannot say with any certainty that age had a lot to do with it.

I don’t recall enough details from smoking it before to make a legitimate comparison. That’s my biggest problem with long-term aging. I’m not disciplined or detail-oriented enough to do it properly.

In this case, the one thing that stood out was the Criollo wrapper’s pre-light aroma, a warm mesquite fragrance I don’t remember. Otherwise, I can’t say how much difference there was in the mild- to medium-strength and the flavors.

Another cigar I smoked recently had experienced considerably less aging, so it’s easier for me to gauge the impact of time. I have about a third of a box of Jaime Garcia Reserva Especial Toros (6 x 54) coming up on a year of age. I smoked several shortly after buying the box, then occasionally. It has been a few months since I last had one of the Broadleaf-wrapped cigars. As with the Toraño Silver, I like the Reserva from My Father, having awarded it a nearly perfect rating in 2010.

The year of aging seems to have served it well, smoothing out any hints of harshness without reducing the power and melding the flavors into a terrific balance. In short, a great experience.

In this case, the humidor time did improve the cigar. Now, if I could just develop enough self-discipline to age more cigars the right way, perhaps I’d have more great smokes.

-George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Optimal Conditions for Cigar Smoking

22 Sep 2014

Assuming time is one of your biggest constraints—as it is mine—you likely face a similar tradeoff: smoke more cigars more often, but forgo the ability to seriously appreciate every stick; or smoke almost every cigar under great smoking conditions, but smoke less.

Cigar

As a husband, father of an infant, and occupant of a demanding job that requires regular travel, it’s really tough to find the time to smoke a cigar under (what I consider to be) optimal circumstances. But I think such circumstances are necessary if I’m going to be studying, writing about, and reviewing many of the cigars I smoke. So, when faced with the aforementioned tradeoff, I’m usually erring on the side of smoking less, but smoking under solid conditions. That’s how things have played out over the past few years.

What exactly are these optimal conditions? Like so many things when it comes to cigars, I’d imagine the conditions vary by individual. And that’s OK. For me, though, I tend to get the most enjoyment out of a cigar—and I have the greatest ability to appreciate its flavors and performance—when the setup is as follows:

• A comfortable piece of furniture
• An agreeable temperature, either outside or inside
• No wind
• Little else to draw away my attention
• A carefully chosen drink

Right away, you can probably see that these requirements aren’t easily met in full. Unless, of course, you have a smoking sanctuary at your home, or you frequent a well-run cigar lounge. The kind of conditions that don’t make the cut for deep cigar appreciation include the golf course, the car, a BBQ, or even going for a walk.

Now don’t get me wrong. Do I find myself smoking cigars on the golf course, in the car, at BBQs, or on walks? Yes. But more often I’m on my back patio or (when the weather is less agreeable) in my den. True, some of this is a function of my work for StogieGuys.com, which requires a lot of careful consideration and writing. But I tend to think I’d still fall into the habit of smoking a little less and smoking more attentively even without this website.

That said, in preparation for this article, lately I’ve consciously smoked more often, many times under less-than-ideal conditions. I’ve enjoyed it. And frankly it’s kind of liberating to fire up a smoke at times when I typically wouldn’t.

I’ve learned that, in terms of the tradeoff, it’s probably ideal to have a more balanced approach. After all, some cigars are built for the golf course, just as some demand my unwavering attention.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Putting Cigar Industry Consolidation in Perspective

17 Sep 2014

On the heels of last week’s news that industry giant General Cigar had acquired the Toraño brands—and that Toraño would be shutting down—seemingly everyone had an opinion to voice. I saw viewpoints ranging from indifference to surprise to downright anger.

There remain many unanswered questions. Why did Toraño make this move now (assuming there is a reason beyond Charlie Toraño wanting to spend more time with his family)? Is General actually committed to maintaining the current Toraño portfolio as-is, or will there be changes to the existing blends? Will new Toraño offshoots/brands be launched by General? And what’s going to happen to Leccia Tobacco?

But whether or not you like this latest consolidation, it’s important to recognize this won’t be the last major deal joining brands that were once distinct. Longtime StogieGuys.com readers may recall several past articles where we’ve explained why:

“There are plenty of reasons to expect consolidation will continue to be a theme in the industry. Via economies of scale, larger companies can better adjust to the many tax and regulatory burdens that cigars now face. Combining sales forces and distribution channels can lower costs, keeping prices down for consumers while keeping profit margins healthy. Increased buying power also ensures access to the best tobacco available, as well as bigger advertising budgets.”

Other motivations behind cigar industry consolidation (though not necessarily motivations behind General’s acquisition of Toraño, mind you) might include:

• Expanding geographical scope/reach
• Capturing new clients and more market share
• Acquiring technology, property, and recipes
• Reviving undervalued brands
• Diversifying the portfolio of offerings

This article in the Harvard Business Review summarizes a study of 1,345 mergers over a 13-year period. It found, “once an industry forms or is deregulated, it will move through four stages of consolidation.” The result is an industry that is balanced and aligned. This final (fourth) state is defined as the top three companies claiming 70% to 90% of the market.

Consolidation Curve

I’ll resist the temptation to try to identify which stage of the so-called “Consolidation Curve” the premium cigar industry currently occupies. If, as I suspect, it’s pre-stage four, we can expect more consolidation on the horizon—like it or not.

-Patrick A

photo credit: Harvard Business Review

Book Review: Unlucky Strike – Private Health and the Science, Law and the Politics of Smoking

4 Sep 2014

unluckystrikeStaddon

If you’re involved in a fight over smoking restrictions or simply want to be well-armed when the topic comes up, Unlucky Strike is a book for you.

Written by Professor John Staddon (above right), a Duke University professor of psychology and biology, his aim is “a re-think and a redress” of society’s current views on smoking. He marshals a lot of argument, replete with footnotes and citations, in just over 100 pages.

That’s fitting for a scholar whose work has ranged from simulated detection of landmines to lectures on traffic control.

But the book is anything but a dry, academic tome. Whether exploring the limitations of epidemiology or dissecting the ins and outs of the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, Staddon maintains a sharp focus, a sense of humor, and a conversational tone.

Here, for example, is his take on the effectiveness of banning cigarette advertising: “Dogs like to chase cats. Keeping them away from cats doesn’t help. The first time they see a cat, off they go. The only way to prevent chasing is to expose them to cats and train them not to chase. So it may be with tobacco.”

You’re as apt to run across a reference to comedians Laurel and Hardy as to epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll.

Nonetheless, this is a book that is unlikely to enjoy wide readership. And that might be OK if those who do read it include policy makers, legislators, scientists, and other researchers. Because whether one agrees with Staddon’s views on smoking, there’s no disputing his thoroughness and depth in presenting his case. It would help anyone keep the sort of open mind necessary to reach valid conclusions.

You can order Unlucky Strike online at Amazon.

-George E

photo credit: University of Buckingham Press