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Commentary: Don’t Underestimate the Enemies of Cigar Freedom

26 May 2015

FDA-cigars-large

As a whole, cigar smokers are an amiable bunch that, with the exception of a few curmudgeons, tend to assume good intentions of others. That’s a good way to deal with most people, and exactly how you’d have most people treat you.

But when it comes to politics, it can be very dangerous to underestimate you opponents. This is very much true with the opponents of cigar freedoms.

There are lots of people with various views on how our laws should deal with tobacco products. When it comes to where smoking is banned or permitted, at what level cigars should be taxed, and to what extent cigars should be treated the same as other tobacco products, there a wide variety of views. A proud, freedom-loving cigar smoker should welcome informed debate.

That said, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact there is a well-funded group of professional anti-tobacco activists for whom any adult choosing to use any tobacco product anywhere is a problem that needs to be solved by a law. Attempts to reason or negotiate with these people are not only a useless; any energy expended on them is counterproductive.

These “tobacco control” activists, as they call themselves, are funded to the tune of billions of dollars a year (much of it by our taxes) and extremely politically connected. Look no further than the U.S. Senate, where a small group of anti-tobacco senators continue to push for more aggressive anti-smoking measures, no matter how hypocritical or illogical.

Earlier this month, Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut called for the FDA to accelerate the rulemaking process to, among other things, regulate cigars. The senator even said if the FDA doesn’t issue a final rule soon enough, he would introduce a law demanding that it rush the final rule. Never mind that anti-smoking activists have called for the FDA process to proceed uninterrupted and without the influence of legislation like the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act. Suddenly, when the supposedly independent rulemaking process isn’t proceeding fast enough, here is a senator moving to intervene.

Similarly, Blumenthal is one of four senators who recently introduced a bill to increase taxes on most tobacco products, including almost doubling most tobacco taxes. That may be unsurprising, but their reasoning strains reality. According to a press release issued by Senator Dick Durbin, the bill is necessary to stop smuggling and black market tobacco products. Of course, anyone with a basic understanding of how taxes create black markets realizes this bill would be counterproductive to its supposed goal.

But pointing out to Senator Blumenthal and his ilk that it is hypocritical for them to interfere with the FDA process, or that excessive taxes only encourage smuggling, would be a waste of time because their real goal is removing tobacco as a choice that informed adults can make for themselves.

So I’d like to suggest the following: Instead of just focusing narrowly on the text of whatever legislation the anti-tobacco forces are championing next, lets also remind Americans (who I still think are mostly reasonable on these issues) that every time they cast their lot with politicians and professional activists who just want one more tobacco tax or regulation or smoking ban, they are siding with folks who reject the basic American premise that adults can make choices for themselves.

Cigar smokers, and all adults who choose to use tobacco, don’t want children smoking, nor do we demand the right to smoke everywhere whenever we want. Mostly, we just want to be left alone and not picked on for our choices by a powerful special interest group that seeks to control a centuries-old behavior by consenting adults.

Maybe I’m too optimistic about Americans. But I think enough people agree with those basic principles for the underdog (and that’s exactly what we are) to ultimately prevail.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys

Commentary: Celebrate Memorial Day by Sending Cigars to the Troops

25 May 2015

Memorial Day is a great for barbeque, relaxation, and smoking a few cigars with family and friends. It’s also an important day to remember the brave men and women who have fought and died for our country. So, if you have the day off, why not use some of the extra time to show your appreciation for the troops by sending them some cigars?

Cigars for Troops

We’ve written about donating cigars to the troops many times before. If you’ve never done it, today’s a great day to start. There are plenty of avenues, but we’d recommend Cigars for Warriors. “Our top priority is collecting then dispersing premium cigars and accessories to troops serving in combat zones, as well as filling requests from United States military personnel on Forces Afloat in Combat Zones,” reads the Cigars for Warriors website. “Our second priority is for long term deployments OCONUS in 3rd world environments and other appropriate Areas of Operations to be dealt with on a case by case basis. It is our way to honor, show respect, and thank those putting it all on the line for us back home. We have received requests from many soldiers who have no one here in the U.S. to send care packages to them, and would otherwise receive nothing.”

To get started, please click here. You can mail cigars, bring your cigars to a donation center, or make a cash donation. Thank you in advance for your support of this important cause.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Random Thoughts from the Humidor (XX)

13 May 2015

In this edition of Random Thoughts from the Humidor, I ponder the proper way to let a cigar die, a method to repair wrapper damage, and beetle season.

Ashtray

Die an Honorable Death

We’ve all read—and probably also heard it said—that you should never stub out your finished cigar. Rather, you should simply let the cigar rest in an ashtray until it has extinguished itself from a lack of puffing. The reasoning behind this, it is said, is that mashing the cigar like a cigarette will produce a stale odor, and the practice is therefore impolite. Perhaps there’s a chemical justification for this policy. I’m not sure. But I decided to do my own personal experiment (albeit with a small sample size) and found that, yes, on the margin, cigars that are stubbed tend to produce a slightly foul odor, whereas cigars that breath their last breaths on their own tend to smell much as they did when they were fully lit. The difference, however, is usually negligible. That said, I never like to stub out my cigars regardless. I just don’t like to see a hand-crafted work of art get crushed into oblivion. I like to think each well-made cigar deserves an honorable death.

Wrapper Damage

As much as we try to avoid it, sometimes a cigar’s wrapper will tear or crack, or the seam will start to unravel a bit. Sometimes this is the result of shipping damage. Sometimes (frustratingly) it occurs when you remove the band while smoking. Sometimes it’s the result of poor storage. Whatever the reason, wrapper damage is going to happen from time to time. If you’re lucky—and if the tear is small—a little saliva could do the trick. If not, you may want to try more drastic measures. For these situations, keep a little pectin or vegetable glue on hand. This is the same non-toxic stuff cigar makers use to glue the bands on their cigars. Having some may mean the difference between smokable and non-smokable.

Meet the Beetles

Temperatures are warming up across most of the country. For cigar smokers, that means it should be a little easier to maintain humidor humidity. But it also means temperature needs to be monitored in order to prevent an outbreak of the dreaded tobacco beetle. Remember: High temperatures, particularly those above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, are conducive to eggs hatching, so keeping your humidors below 70 degrees. The best way to deal with tobacco beetles is to prevent them in the first place. If you’re unfortunate enough to experience an outbreak, you can read our materials on how to battle the beetles here and here.

Patrick A

photo credit: Flickr

Commentary: Thoughts About Mexican Tobacco on Cinco de Mayo

5 May 2015

mexico-cigar-flag

It’s Cinco de Mayo, a day that celebrates the Mexican victory in the Battle of Puebla, where the Mexican army defeated the imperial ambitions of Napoleon III’s France. You more likely know it as the time of year when advertisements for Mexican beer are everywhere and margaritas and tequila are over-represented at bars.

But I’d like to use the opportunity to talk about Mexican tobacco.

A few days ago, my colleague mentioned his preference against San Andrés wrapper—”I’m more than ‘not a fan’ of the Mexican San Andrés wrapper” he wrote—and I find myself in much the same boat. Tell me nothing more about two cigars than one has a San Andrés wrapper and one does not, and I’ll pick the non-Mexican leaf.

My problem, and this a personal preference, is with the gritty, dry flavors frequently absent any significant sweetness and occasionally with a acidic twinge. For a while I thought this may have been a historic bias against Mexican tobacco, but I’ve tasted enough cigars (including blind) to know it is an accurate perception.

Mexican tobacco’s history plays a role in its reputation for rough, gritty cigars. For years, while the country did export tobacco to be used as a component in many well-known cigars (Macanudo, for example uses a San Andrés binder), cigars produced in Mexico were almost exclusively puros, because tax rates on imported tobacco were prohibitively high.

The result was puros (primarily Te-Amo, which had a big following; if you grew up in New York City in the 80s and 90s, as I did, Te-Amo was a name you saw prominently featured at bodegas and newspaper stands) made by the Turrents, the first family of Mexican tobacco. Those cigars were notably rough and strong, and had only a niche following.

Today the Turrents are severing old ties and rebranding (and I look forward to seeing what they produce next). Mexican wrappers are being used more than ever, but less than ever in Mexican puros. The price of Connecticut Broadleaf has turned many cigarmakers to Mexican San Andrés wrappers as a source of Maduro.

To that end, some cigars with San Andrés wrappers are some of my favorites, including Drew Estate’s Undercrown, Illusione *R* Rothchildes, and Tatuaje’s The Face Halloween blend. These cigars, whether through aging or blending, overcome the aspects of the San Andrés wrapper that I often find off-putting. Not to mention the persistently whispered rumors that Padrón uses Mexican Maduro wrappers without disclosing it, although significant skepticism is advised since no one seems willing to put their name to the claim.

So I’ll continue to try new cigars with San Andrés wrappers or other Mexican components. In fact, I wish cigarmakers were experimenting more with different wrappers grown in San Andrés like the Habano wrapper used in the A. Turrent Revolution. And yet (just as my taste in red wine is generally not for merlot, although occasionally one really impresses me) I remain slightly biased against San Andrés wrapped cigars, not because they are bad, but because my personal preference is such that it takes an exceptional example to impress me.

P.S. For a more traditional Cinco de Mayo reference, checkout my Margaritas recipe.

Patrick S

photo credit: iivangm (Flickr)

Commentary: Moving Forward in a New Era of U.S.-Cuban Relations

16 Apr 2015

castro-obama

At this point there isn’t much doubt that we are seeing a new era in relations between Cuba and the United States. I was reminded of this when I received the latest issue of Cigar Aficionado featuring “Welcome to Cuba” on the cover, and a nearly 40-page guide (not including the over 20 pages of ads) written for Americans visiting Cuba.

After President Obama’s recent executive order making legal travel to Cuba easier (and making it legal for visitors to import $100 worth of Cuban cigars), he attended the Organization of American States meeting last week and even had a photo-op and chat with Raúl Castro. Obama’s handshake meeting with the head of the Cuban regime was followed up this week with a recommendation to Congress that Cuba be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Despite Cuban cigars not being legal in the United States for half a century, Cuba’s influence on American cigar culture is indisputable. It is impossible to smoke a premium cigar today sold in the United States that doesn’t have a direct or indirect connection to a Cuban.

Make no mistake, much of that influence is because many Cubans had to flee the brutal communist revolution during and after which many lost virtually all of what they had and found themselves having to start over in a foreign country. Out of that, the premium cigar industry began to grow independent of Cuba, but under the deep influence of Cubans living abroad.

So how do we reconcile that history with an evolving relationship with an island country just 90 miles from Florida?

My own view is there is nothing wrong with embracing a new era of Cuban-American relations. The embargo hasn’t succeeded in toppling the most repressive aspects of the Castro regime. Maybe a new policy can have better results.

But we should not move forward with a blind spot about the deep flaws of the Cuban government. Nor should we pretend those flaws are just a thing of the past. (Read this article from last year for a picture of what Cuba is like for most Cubans.)

It may be time to normalize relations with Cuba, just like we have with many other governments that have poor records when it comes to human rights, and we should hope more interactions with Americans will lead to more freedom for the Cuban people. We just shouldn’t do so naively thinking that the new era has come because the Cuban government has fundamentally changed, but rather with hope that someday soon change will come to Cuba.

Patrick S

photo credit: Whitehouse.gov

Commentary: Opening Day for Baseball and Cigars

7 Apr 2015

tampa-smokers

Last evening was the finals of the NCAA tournament (a good game, too; I’m watching while I finalize this article). But that wasn’t the sporting event of the day that I was most looking forward to. For me, yesterday was about Opening Day for Major League Baseball.

Like much of America, I like watching my sports teams (New York Mets, Rangers, and Giants). I also, obviously, enjoy smoking cigars. So I naturally pair the two frequently.

We’ve written before about the wonderful pairing of baseball and cigars. We’ve interviewed legendary Cuban pitcher and cigar smoker Luis Tiant. My colleague and I even petitioned to allow cigar smoking in the old Nationals RFK Stadium.

At the time of our petition, there were frequently completely empty sections in the upper deck of the huge multi-purpose stadium. So why not allow cigar smoking in one of them for just one night? What would be the harm? We even got a local cigar shop to provide cigars for a giveaway. As you might have guessed, the Nationals disagreed.

A few Major League ballparks do allow cigar smoking in special cigar bars. Comerica Park in Detroit has the Asylum Cigar Bar. Tropicana Field in Tampa has the Cuesta Rey Cigar Bar. Pittsburgh’s PNC Park used to have a cigar section.

But a few cigar bars in the ballpark aren’t why baseball and cigars are a natural pairing. I have two theories for the connection. First, baseball season is also cigar season. Running April to October, it’s prime cigar smoking time, in a way that no other major sports season is. Opening Day signals spring is officially here and summer isn’t far off either. Some days may be uncomfortably hot, depending on where you are, but the cooler evenings, when most MLB games are played, are prime cigar time.

The other aspect of baseball that’s so perfect for cigars is the pace. Some people complain that baseball is too slow. When you’re following a game you care about, though, it isn’t slow or boring. Just deliberate. Take a draw between batters or pitches, then sit back, exhale, and watch the action. Need to freshen your drink, check your email, or use the facilities? Put your cigar down and take care of business. Your cigar will still be lit when you get back for the first pitch of the next half inning.

So here’s to another baseball (and cigar) season, full of lots of wins and fine smokes.

Patrick S

photo credit: Tampa Baseball Museum

Commentary: Cigar Renaissance or Unhealthy Bubble?

5 Mar 2015

tobacco-overheated

Discerning cigar smokers still flinch at memories of the cigar boom of the mid ’90s. From 1993 to 1997, annual handmade cigar imports skyrocketed from under 100 million to well over 400 million.

The result wasn’t good for consumers. Many established manufacturers couldn’t ramp up production while still meeting quality standards, and lesser quality “Don Nobody” brands flooded the market.

Good cigars were suddenly difficult or sometimes impossible to find, while poor and mediocre cigars were being sold for high prices. From the perspective of consumers for whom cigar smoking was more than a fad, the bursting of this cigar bubble was a good thing, even if it took a few years for things to stabilize.

For the industry, the boom wasn’t so bad. First off, they sold a lot of cigars in the peak of the boom, and the smart ones had enough foresight to be ready to weather the coming bust.

The longer-term benefits to the industry were the lessons learned. Cigar makers are rightfully weary of sacrificing quality for quantity, even as total handmade cigar production has crept up towards mid-boom numbers.

So, at some point, the question has to be asked: Are handmade cigars approaching another bubble that’s about to burst? There are good reasons to think not, but maybe some warning signs too. First off, the growth has been far more steady this time. Also, you don’t hear as much from industry types about a coming end to boom times, which I’m told was seen by many as almost inevitable during the mid ’90s, even if the exact timing or speed of the collapse were largely unanticipated. The counter is that it’s hardly unusual for bursting bubbles to not be anticipated by most people in them, otherwise people wouldn’t lose so much money in those bubbles.

One of the things that worries me is the ever-increasing price of new cigars, especially the increasing number of cigars sold by companies that aren’t themselves cigar makers. Many of these cigars are of good quality, but they don’t always offer particularly good value for smokers, in part because they have to buy their cigars before they sell them to retailers.

Then there are the pending potential shocks to the established cigar industry. FDA regulation has the potential to wipe out numerous brands introduced in the past few years. Other possible market-shattering events include the full end of the Cuban Embargo, or a natural disaster striking a major growing region.

I don’t want to bum anyone out here, but cautious optimism is usually a more intelligent outlook than unrestrained exuberance. While a collapse like the cigar industry saw after the peak of the ’90s cigar boom seems unlikely, industries don’t usually grow forever.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys