Cigar shops fret over higher taxes, smoking laws
NEW ORLEANS — With the world becoming ever less welcoming for tobacco smoke of all kinds, the owners of specialty shops that sell premium cigars have converged on New Orleans with the same concerns as mass-market cigarette manufacturers — higher taxes and anti-smoking laws.
The cigars at the annual trade show of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association are not the packaged stogies found in an isolated corner of a convenience store. These are hand-rolled smokes — sometimes with Cuban seed tobacco grown in a non-embargoed country — that can go from a couple of bucks to $30 each.
"It's tough," said Chris McCalla, legislative director for Columbus, Ga.-based IPCRA, which represents about 1,500 tobacco stores. "People view us in the same category of cigarettes. With a cigar, it's different. It's a pleasurable experience. It's socialization of sorts."
Mark Twain once said he always tried not to smoke two cigars at once. Winston Churchill smoked cigars in peacetime and wartime. A cigar was more than just a prop for Groucho Marx. John F. Kennedy enjoyed puffing — although he barred the import of Cuban cigars during his showdowns with another cigar aficionado, Fidel Castro, who later claimed to have quit smoking. And, in modern times, Rush Limbaugh often associates himself with a premium cigar.
"The cigar continues to have a unique place in the hearts of a lot of men," said Norm Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group of distributors and manufacturers. "There are a lot of aficionados out there."
And many detractors, including the American Cancer Society, which has said that cigars — as well as pipes — are not a safe substitute for cigarettes and carry much of the same cancer risk.
IPCRA estimates there are 12 to 13 million cigar smokers in the United States, who puff an average of two a week, ranging from several a day to the special-event-only smoker, McCalla said.
When Congress hiked cigarette taxes earlier this year, cigars did not escape the attention of lawmakers, who imposed a tax increase between about 5 cents and 40 cents per cigar. The industry now fears that state legislatures, many of which are trying to close big budget gaps, will follow suit.
"Tobacco is considered low-hanging fruit for taxation," Sharp said.
And cigars are among the active targets for anti-smoking groups.
Although only Delaware, Washington state and Utah ban puffing in tobacco establishments, the city of Galveston, Texas, recently passed a clean air ordinance that forbids smoking in a planned cigar lounge — a store that provides a room for cigar-lovers to visit and enjoy their tobacco.
Owner Charlie Head, who plans to open Sept. 1 after his previous store was wiped out by Hurricane Ike, said it's ridiculous to think people who don't smoke would even come inside his business, which includes lockers for smokers to store their cigars and liquor they bring in.
"We're going ahead with it," Head said. "But a big part of our business is locker rental."
Head said he hoped to win an exemption for his shop before the ban takes effect on Jan. 1.
Even before the spread of cigarette smoking bans, cigars and pipes received a chilly reception in many places. Airliners that used to permit cigarettes wouldn't allow cigars and pipes. And many smoking bars today are actually cigarette-only bars — don't light up that cigar or pipe, a sign often says.
As a result, cigar smoking has become largely a private activity, McCalla said, with the cigar lounge or cigar bar a popular gathering place.
"Most cigar smokers would like to sit down comfortably and smoke with others," he said.
The recession has cut into business, said Doug Winston, manager of the New Orleans Cigar Co., a 700-square-foot store in the downtown district. To start with, go-outside-to-smoke rules are making shorter cigars more popular.
"With the tax and the economy, people also seem to be going to the lesser-expensive cigars," Winston said.
As for the convention itself, which is hosting about 4,000 people through Wednesday, smoking will be allowed in the exhibit hall between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. But members of the public aren't invited to the meeting — and no one under 18 will be let in, McCalla said.
Monday, August 10, 2009