Cigar merchants band together to act on regulatory atmosphere
Alongside a variety of 50 different cigars, David Andrea offers customers a few brands of specialty cigarettes.
But he is considering taking the cigarettes off his shelves.
The Kenosha retailer has joined cigar shop owners from Milwaukee, Waukesha and elsewhere in a new statewide coalition to defend their favorite smokes in the political arena.
Part of the strategy for the Cigar Store Alliance of Wisconsin is to distinguish cigars from cigarettes by arguing that the group's beloved stogies are less widespread, less addictive, even less unhealthy.
"We're not the same thing," Andrea said. "We're not evil tobacco."
In less than a year, the alliance has flexed its clout to help derail a statewide smoking ban and to snuff a tax increase on cigars.
Opponents say the group is creating nothing but a smokescreen.
Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of SmokeFree Wisconsin, said cigars are no less hazardous than cigarettes, and her group would never advocate exempting cigars from a statewide ban on workplace smoking.
"If we are serious about protecting people, I don't think we should," she said of the exemption idea.
Citing warnings that some cigars contain as much tobacco as an entire pack of cigarettes, Busalacchi said cigars blended with cherry, vanilla and other flavors seem aimed at children.
'A product of leisure'
The group's Web site describes cigars as "an organic product not laced with chemicals" and "a product of leisure and pleasure, not a product of addiction."
To make its case with state lawmakers in Madison, the alliance has hired lobbyist Ronald Kuehn of the Madison law firm of DeWitt Ross & Stevens.
The coalition includes about a dozen cigar store operators in Milwaukee, Germantown, Waukesha, West Allis, Brookfield, Burlington, Appleton and elsewhere.
"We think we have a good story to tell," said Jeffrey Barta, owner of the Nice Ash cigar bar in downtown Waukesha.
The group began meeting last year after Gov. Jim Doyle revealed a state budget proposal that called for significant tax increases on cigarettes and other tobacco products. State officials eventually settled on a $1-per-pack increase for cigarettes.
With cigars already being taxed at 25% of their retail price, merchants warned that a legislative plan boosting the rate to 65% would force many of them out of business. As a compromise, the alliance accepted a 50% tax rate - but with a 50-cent cap per cigar.
The cap meant that for any stogie costing more than about $2, taxes actually went down.
And the Wisconsin cigar lobby was born.
Jeff Steinbock, owner of Uhle's Pipe Shop in downtown Milwaukee, said he was pleased to see that, after years of counting on national tobacco interests to represent them, Wisconsin cigar merchants stood up for themselves.
"We learned how to get our voice out there," he said. "It's kind of impressive when you consider that we're all competitors. But without getting together, we would have perished."
The alliance also was active in fighting Doyle's plan for a statewide ban on smoking in workplaces, including taverns and cigar stores. After lengthy negotiations failed to yield a compromise, lawmakers last week declared the issue virtually dead for the current legislative session.
Members of the cigar alliance plan to remain organized, however, in case they find themselves facing another smoking ban proposal or another issue.
Jennifer Groh, owner of Metro Cigars in Germantown, said she believes state lawmakers now understand that cigars should be viewed - and regulated - differently than cigarettes.
The recent battle over tax increases persuaded cigars store owners that they needed to make those differences clear, Groh said.
"We felt like we were losing ground," she said. "We've come a long way."
Wednesday, February 06, 2008