RICHMOND, Va. -- Sometimes a cigar isn't just a cigar.
From large hand-rolled cigars and smaller machine-made cigars to little cigars that are similar in size to cigarettes, there are nearly as many cigars as there are aficionados to enjoy them. And as federal regulators weigh standards for the entire industry, some in the cigar world are pushing to make sure their livelihoods and the products they enjoy don't go up in smoke.
While the Food and Drug Administration has expressed its intention to regulate cigars under a 2009 law that gave it authority over the tobacco industry, it has yet to specify what's ahead as it ramps up efforts to curb the death and disease caused by tobacco.
If it's anything like the FDA's regulation of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, that could mean banning certain flavors, requiring new health warnings, limiting the sizes and shapes of cigars, or imposing restrictions for marketing, advertising and retail sales. Cigars also may be restricted from being sold separately and the agency also could limit the amount of nicotine in the products.
The premium cigar industry argues any number of the potential restrictions could hurt both cigar makers and specialty tobacco stores, whose products make up only a small fraction of tobacco sales, don't pose the same concerns as cigarettes, and the range of sizes and shapes of cigars makes across-the-board standards almost impossible.
Even the House Appropriations Committee weighed in on issue in its report on the fiscal year 2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill on Tuesday, reminding the FDA that "premium cigars have unique characteristics and cost prohibitive price points and are not marketed to kids. Any effort to regulate cigars should take these items into consideration."
"If you're going to focus your efforts on regulating tobacco products to meet the spirit and intent of the Tobacco Control Act, where is best to spend those scarce resources – on a tenth of a percent of the market or on a huge chunk of the market?" asked Bill Spann, CEO of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association, an industry group representing more than 2,000 tobacco retailers and more than 350 cigar manufacturers, distributors and others.
According to the latest federal data, there are about 13.3 million cigar smokers in the U.S., far less than the 45.3 million U.S. cigarette smokers.
U.S. tobacco sales topped $107 billion in 2011, but only 7 percent, or $7.77 billion, consisted of cigars, according to statistics from Euromonitor International. And of the 7 billion cigars sold annually, only about 250 million of them qualify as premium, handmade cigars that range in price from $6 to $30 and are – as far as Spann is concerned – akin to fine wines and craft beer.
While Spann recognizes the need for tobacco regulation, he believes smoking premium cigars is a hobby, not a habit, and they aren't marketed or sold to children.
"You don't have a middle-schooler or high-schooler standing on the corner with a $15 Davidoff (a brand of cigar) sticking out of their mouth," Spann said.
Possible restrictions to premium cigars have been a topic of conversation at any one of Craig Cass' specialty tobacco shops in North Carolina and South Carolina, where smokers often make use of lounge areas to smoke and chat.
"They're worried about losing the artisan nature of our products, where every time they come in there's something new to select from," Cass said, adding that customers aren't just coming in to "grab their smokes," they are looking for a particular cigar to suit their mood or the situation.
If regulations force cigar makers to conform their products, that could limit the number of cigars available for aficionados to choose from the store's large, walk-in humidors.
"All of that range of flavor is very unique to every single box in the humidor," Cass said. "If we were like the other category of tobacco like a cigarette, you could walk in the humidor and have 10 boxes of cigars in there. ... We have 700."
Cass' interaction with customers could also change under federal regulations, putting the cigars behind the counter rather than in a humidor where customers can smell, touch and see a variety of cigars. In Canada, for example, cigar shops now have binders with a list of available cigars that customers can point to on a piece of paper.
Cass and Spann have joined with others in the cigar industry to seek a change in Congress to protect premium hand-rolled cigars from FDA regulation and save 85,000 small business jobs around the country. Resolutions in both the House and the Senate remain in committee.
In the House, the resolution sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, a Republican from Florida – home to many of the nation's premium cigar makers – has gained more than 200 co-sponsors. The Senate resolution, sponsored by Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, also from Florida, has more than 10 co-sponsors.
As far as regulation is concerned, the greatest need is to "put an end to the production and marketing of products that have the greatest appeal to youth," said Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, singling out machine-made large cigars, little cigars and tobacco wrappers that sold at convenience stores for low prices and in a variety of flavors like peach and strawberry.
Nearly 19 percent of high school boys currently smoke cigars, according to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. That's slightly less than the 2005 rate of 19.2 percent.
"These highly flavored little cigars clearly appeal disproportionately to young people and have the potential to serve as starter tobacco products," Myers said.
While all cigars increase the risk of disease, Myers said "the FDA has the ability to segment which cigar products pose the greatest risk both in terms of disease and in terms of youth use and to design regulations appropriate for each, which is what we'd like to see them do."
Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc., owner of Black & Mild cigar maker John Middleton, said in a statement that if the FDA asserts regulation over cigars, it should be "science-based and apply to all cigar manufacturers." Machine-made Black & Mild cigars and cigarillos are sold in flavor varieties such as sweet, wine and apple. Altria also owns the nation's biggest tobacco company and maker of top-selling Marlboro cigarettes, Philip Morris USA.
But for Rocky Patel, who quit his job as an entertainment lawyer in California to start a boutique cigar business out of his garage, legislative or regulatory exemption of premium handmade cigars is vital to his survival and the about 2,000 people he directly or indirectly employs.
"I gave up a law practice to start this dream ... I worked relentlessly and built this company and started with nothing," Patel said of his Florida-based cigar company. "We went from making 100,000 cigars to about 18 million cigars (each year) and all this could be taken away with the stroke of a pen from the FDA."