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Commentary: Three Cigar Wishes for 2015

13 Jan 2015

new years wishes

I have three cigar wishes for the new year. I’m not normally the optimistic type. More the way Billy Crystal described his grandfather: the kind of guy who always thought the glass was half full… of something that would kill you.

So, I can’t say I’m likely to see my wishes granted, but there’s always hope.

An exemption from FDA regulation. This, I think, would top every cigar smokers’ list. (Or it at least should.) If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t accept—or have forced upon it—an exemption for premium, hand-rolled cigars, it might not be a death blow to the industry. But it will most certainly inflict a crippling injury and likely render it unrecognizable within a few years. Expectations are for the regulations to come no sooner than this summer, but the uncertainty could easily stretch further into the future.

Good weather for tobacco crops. As cigar blenders continue to experiment with tobacco from more and more countries, the global climate becomes increasingly significant. Though the quality of 2015 crops won’t be apparent until years in the future, a top harvest would be a boon for manufacturers and ensure more great smokes to come.

Clean up the catalogs. Why do major catalog retailers devote more and more pages to machine-made cigars and electronic cigarettes and cigars? Money, of course. But I think it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish. I’ve got nothing against machine-mades or e-cigs, but I hate to see them closely associated and pitched with premium cigars. As the industry struggles to separate itself from nicotine delivery devices, this type of advertising hurts. Why not print separate catalogs for those who want them?

What’s on your list as we head into 2015?

-George E

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (Looking Ahead At 2015)

8 Jan 2015

In this latest segment of Random Thoughts from the Humidor, I think about what the new year will bring for Cuban policy and the FDA, plus the potential impact on the cigar industry of a new Nicaraguan canal construction project.

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Watching, Waiting on the FDA

Since passage of the FDA bill in 2009, we have been warning of the danger it poses to the cigar industry. Last year, when the Deeming Document and proposed rule were released, more people finally caught on to the disruptive potential. Now we wait.

This chart explains the nine-step process. It’s important to remember the FDA is currently on step 7, which includes reviewing all the public comments. But that process doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Politics will play a role, along with science, public opinion expressed in the comments, and the legislative mandate.

That’s why continuing the push for legislation to exempt handmade cigars from the FDA remains critical. While having the bill become law would obviously be great, even without passing the legislation it can influence the FDA to think twice about going against the wishes of a significant number of members of Congress. So with a new Congress starting earlier this week, let your representatives hear from you today.

Could the Nicaraguan Canal Impact Cigars?

Here’s a story to keep an eye on. Construction has just begun on a $50 billion construction project to build a canal across Nicaragua. The murky Chinese-funded project is projected to be completed in five years and will allow ships too large to pass through the Panama canal to cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic by traveling through a series of canals connected through Lake Nicaragua.

So what’s the cigar impact? Too early to tell exactly, but it could be significant. The canal could make shipping cigars from Nicaragua to the U.S. even easier, and it could result in more Nicaraguan cigars being exported to other countries, especially China. However, there are potential downsides too. Some have raised concerns about the environmental impact, especially on Lake Nicaragua, which is where the volcanic island of Ometepe is located, also one of the four notable growing regions for Nicaraguan cigar tobacco. Thankfully, no one is proposing using nuclear bombs for construction of the canal this time.

I Heard they Legalized Cuban Cigars

I expect retailers will get questions from occasional cigar smokers asking about Cubans. That’s because the announcement just before Christmas wasn’t particularly clear, nor did the media do a good job reporting what it meant. (We clarified everything here, but the short version is, unless you are visiting Cuba with the explicit permission of the U.S. government, nothing has changed.)

As for more action on the Cuban embargo, I would be shocked to see any in the next two years. Ending the embargo takes an act of Congress and the president’s signature. Plus, as long as Florida remains a key swing state for presidential elections, changing Cuban policy will be a risky play for anyone with national ambitions. So any talk that the recent announcement was the first step towards a quick end to the embargo is unwarranted.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Give Us a Piece of Your Mind

7 Jan 2015

StogieGuys.com was born from a love of cigars. Its founders created the site (over eight years ago!) as an outlet to share their passion, and it has grown and evolved through the years, though cigars remain at the core.

I’ve spent some time reading through all our entries for 2014. In addition to scores of reviews, we’ve covered topics that range from tips for beginners to author interviews, from guides on great libations to exploring pertinent legislation. And many, many others, including reports from overseas.

As we head into a new year, it seems appropriate to do a little reassessing. To ask, as former New York City Mayor Ed Koch was fond of inquiring, “How am I doing?”

That’s where you come in.

Tell us what you’d like to see at StogieGuys.com in 2015.

Should we cover more of the growing number of high-end releases? Or scout for worthwhile low-priced sticks? Do you like to see interviews with industry leaders, or has the explosion of social media made them so visible that interviews aren’t really necessary nowadays?

One issue we struggle with is, when you’ve been doing this as long as we have, there’s a danger of being repetitive. Still, many readers are newcomers and could benefit from information or advice that may have been presented years ago.

Another big item for discussion: For the first time in years, we didn’t cover the 2014 IPCPR Trade Show in person. Our absence, mind you, wasn’t a protest; it was simply a reflection of the fact that (1) our site founders have day jobs and family obligations, and (2) travel accommodations are not inexpensive. Did you miss us not covering the event live? Or did we still give you enough reporting on the new releases and activities? Do you think it’s essential we cover this summer’s convention in New Orleans in person?

We’ve dabbled a bit into the world of pipe smoking. Should we do more?

Looking back, one area I’m particularly proud of is our coverage of federal legislation and regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. We’ve also tried to rally readers to the cause. The outcome has the very real potential to dramatically alter—even destroy—every cigar smokers’ ability to continue enjoying cigars. Too much? Not enough? Just right?

I could go on. As you can see, I have barely scratched the surface of areas of interest.

So, if you would, take a minute or two and leave a comment, or send us an email, with your thoughts about Stogie Guys in 2015. And trust that we really value your feedback.
I can’t promise we’ll be able to satisfy everyone, though we will certainly consider all of your replies carefully.

And I will guarantee one thing: Cigars will always be front and center. We still love them.

-George E

photo credit: N/A

Commentary: Are Cuban Cigars Really Legal? Or Special?

23 Dec 2014

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No, you cannot legally import Cuban cigars unless you are a licensed visitor to Cuba.

The recent announcement about relaxed restrictions for the importation of Cuban cigars has some people (and media) confused. To clarify, the rule will allow officially licensed travelers to import $100 worth of Cuban cigars or Cuban rum into the U.S. (as part of a $400 total import allowance). This is change from the previous policy which didn’t allow any Cuban cigars to be imported.

However, travelers to Europe, Canada, Mexico, or other countries where Cuban cigars are legally sold still cannot legally import any Cuban cigars. This was confirmed for StogieGuys.com by a U.S. Treasury Department spokesman who made it clear the new rules only apply to authorized travelers going to Cuba; they do not apply to travelers going to third countries. So don’t hit the duty-free shop in Heathrow for $100 worth of Cuban cigars before returning to the U.S. because of the announcement last week. It’s still illegal, and if you get caught ignorance of the law will be no excuse.

Are Cubans really all they’re hyped to be?

It’s almost inevitable: When a non-smoker or infrequent cigar smoker discovers I smoke a lot of cigars and write about cigars, I get asked some variety of this question: Are Cubans really the best? Or is it just because they’re illegal in the U.S.? Normally, it happens a couple times a month. In the past week, since Obama announced a move towards normalized U.S. relations with Cuba, I’ve been asked this question almost daily.

So here’s my response: The best Cuban cigars are without a doubt some of the finest cigars in the world. But many Cuban cigars are not world-class, and a significant percentage of Cubans are not even particularly good.

There are two primary reasons for this. First, the rest of the world has stepped up its game since the Cuban embargo was signed into law (after President Kennedy reportedly had his press secretary procure 1,200 Cuban cigars). When the embargo became law, most of the world’s premium handmade cigars were either made in Cuba or made elsewhere with Cuban tobacco. These days, great cigars are made in many countries, in particular the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras, where many Cubans who fled Castro’s Cuba brought their expertise after the Cuban government nationalized the Cuban cigar industry. These cigars also are often a better value than Cubans for the same cost.

Second, the authoritarian Cuban government has limited the ability of Cuba to consistently produce excellent cigars. Without the competition of the free market and with the Cuban government owning all aspects of the Cuban cigar industry, Cuban cigars have been able to rest on their reputation. But quality control has suffered greatly and Cuban cigars are notorious for inconsistent construction, and for needing considerable aging because often the cigars are made before the tobacco has had enough time to age properly.

Still, there is no denying Cuba can produce some of the best cigar tobacco. Cigar tobacco depends on micro-climates for its flavor and quality, and parts of Cuba are indisputably some of the finest places for growing tobacco. It’s the equivalent of the Bordeaux or Burgundy regions in France for wine, and despite the Cuban government’s interference, the pride and tradition of Cuban cigars still creates some fantastic cigars.

This is compounded by the Cuban government’s need for hard currency to pay for needed imports. Cigars are one of the most valuable exports the country has, and the government still has an incentive to make cigars that they can charge top dollar for in free markets around the world. This produces enough world-class cigars to boost the reputation of all Cuban cigars.

Ultimately, it’s too simple to say that Cuban cigars’ reputation is solely based the mystique of being a forbidden fruit to Americans. There are still enough excellent Cubans, especially high-end and limited cigars, sold to keep up the reputation for excellence, even though most Cuban cigars wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy if you didn’t know where it was made.

-Patrick S

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Keeping After the FDA and Cigars

18 Dec 2014

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Reading about the recently approved $1.1 trillion federal spending bill, it was hard not to wonder where cigars were. After all, the bill was larded with special provisions on topics from Army boots to cow manure.

It sure would have been nice if someone could have slipped in the provision barring the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposed regulation of premium cigars that’s been bouncing around Capitol Hill for several years.

I talked to George Cecala in the office of U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, the Floridian who’s a leader in pushing the bill. Cecala told me they tried before to get it into other legislation, and for those not directly involved in the process of assembling the bill, it wasn’t easy to get anything in.

Not that cigars were ignored altogether. A Cigar Rights of America (CRA) press release Wednesday highlighted what it called a “direct message being conveyed from the U.S. Congress to the FDA that premium cigars should not be regulated.”

It came, CRA reported, in the House Appropriations Committee’s funding report for the FDA: “…the Committee notes that FDA is considering excluding premium cigars from the scope of this proposed rule… The Committee believes this could be a viable solution, given that the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act makes little mention of cigars throughout the legislation, and there is even less evidence that Congress intended to focus on the unique subset of premium cigars.”

Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic about the impact. We know already that the reason the FDA included the exemption option in the first place was because the White House Office of Management and Budget forced it in. As Reuters reported in June: “…OMB turned the FDA’s proposal as it relates to cigars from a two-part rule—one for traditional tobacco products and one for products that have not previously been regulated—into a ‘two-option’ rule, one of which would exempt ‘premium cigars.’”

CRA also noted that while the spending language was “a positive step forward… it does not eliminate the need for an unambiguous Congressional exemption for premium cigars.”

As the FDA continues its review, those like Posey and the CRA say they’re not relenting in their push to remove the threat of FDA oversight. The plan is to reintroduce the legislation in the 114th Congress after it convenes next month.

If you haven’t already done so, there’s no better time to write your representative and senators to let them know you support excluding premium cigars from FDA regulation.

-George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Commentary: The Truth About Cigar Studies

18 Nov 2014

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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