After a long day at the Fairhaven Smoke Shop, Michael Waters occasionally unwinds with an activity that’s not a surprise considering his line of work.
He lights up a cigar.
For the owner of the small tobacco store in Sycamore Square on Harris Avenue, it’s difficult to put the appeal into words.
“There’s a ritual to it,” Waters said. “Every cigar has its own original personality.”
Retailers of premium cigars, a term for the high-end varieties rolled with whole-leaf tobacco, are responding to signals that the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services might extend regulatory authority into the cigar industry.
The FDA has already tightened rules on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, but has so far left cigars alone.
However, according to recent notices published in the Federal Register, new rules could be coming, including possible bans on mail-order cigars and walk-in humidors, required FDA pre-approval of cigar blends, limits on nicotine levels and higher taxes.
Cigar lobbyists say the regulations would destroy the business of premium cigar retail.
Bill Spann, CEO of the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association, a Georgia-based trade group, said up to 86,000 jobs could be lost nationwide.
“It’s going to devastate small business,” Spann said. “Most of our business is “mom and pop,” small-business retailers.”
In his Fairhaven store, Waters sells other products including pipe tobacco and cigarettes, but he said he can’t afford to lose profits from cigars.
“Without the premium cigar business, I wouldn’t have my shop,” Waters said. “There’s no way I could survive on just pipe tobacco.”
Public health an issue in new law
Along with other industry groups, the IPCPR is pushing a new bill in both houses of Congress, titled The Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act.
The law would exempt traditional large and premium cigars from FDA regulation.
The bill has received bi-partisan support, and has 200 co-sponsors in the House, according to the IPCPR, which has led lobbying efforts.
The American Dental Association is urging lawmakers in the Senate to vote down the law, citing a strong association between cigar smoking and death from mouth and throat cancers.
“Taxpayer dollars would be better spent discouraging the use of cancer-causing products, including traditional large and premium cigars,” the association’s president William Calnon and executive director Kathleen O’Loughlin wrote in a February 23 letter to federal lawmakers. “It is vital that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration be allowed to retain its strong, effective authority to regulate these products.”
Spann disagreed that cigar smoking is a significant public health concern.
Not only do cigars represent a sliver of the tobacco industry, but cigar smokers’ habits are very different from users of other forms of tobacco, such as cigarettes, he said.
Even the heaviest cigar smoker usually consumes no more than one or two a day, Spann said, and cigars are not generally inhaled deep into the lungs like other forms of smokeable tobacco.
“You do things in moderation,” Spann said. “People don’t chain-smoke cigars.”
Waters acknowledged smoking was unhealthy, but said people of legal age had a right to choose for themselves whether to smoke or not.
“Smoking is bad for you,” Waters said. “It’s also a legal product that has hundreds of years of history. My main concern is just an issue of freedom of choice.”
Joe Arundel, president of the Cigar Association of Washington and owner of Rain City Cigar in Seattle, said one major problem for cigar retailers is that policymakers generally lump the industry into the same category as cigarettes.
This was a significant issue during the Washington group’s recent efforts to bring back indoor smoking lounges to the state, Arundel said.
Getting the smoke back inside
Indoor cigar lounges closed statewide after Washington voters passed an initiative in 2005 extending the state’s indoor smoking ban to locations such as schools, bars, casinos and places of employment.
Arundel said the lounges are a popular place for cigar smokers to relax, smoke and chat with friends and fellow enthusiasts.
The Cigar Association of Washington has been a major supporter of a new effort to allow a limited number of cigar retailers to open indoor lounges.
A state bill to develop a licensing system for Washington’s cigar retailers to open indoor lounges received support from lawmakers but stalled during the last legislative session. Arundel said Gov. Chris Gregoire threatened to veto the bill if it passed.
The law would have required cigar lounges to be “physically separated” from places where indoor smoking is already banned, such as workplaces. It would have also required operators to utilize air-ventilation systems for their lounges separate from their places of business.
Additionally, employees working in lounges would have to sign affidavits acknowledging the potential risks of working in an environment where cigar smoke would be present.
The American Cancer Society has opposed the measure. The health advocacy organization cited studies from the National Cancer Institute showing that cigar smoke could possibly be more toxic than cigarette smoke, even if cigars are not inhaled the way cigarettes are.
Arundel said the bill will likely be reintroduced during the next legislative. He was confident that cigar lounges would eventually return to the state.
“We’ll have a whole new regime coming into Olympia,” he said. “So, we’re optimistic that saner heads with prevail.”
Back in Fairhaven
Waters said he supported cigar lounges making a comeback, but he didn’t share Arundel’s confidence that lawmakers would change their minds.
On cigar industry’s standoff with the FDA, he felt more positive.
As only the second owner of the Fairhaven Smoke Shop, which has been on Harris Avenue for more than three decades, Waters said business has been steady.
He lacks significant competition in Whatcom County, though an increasing online tobacco trade keeps him on his toes.
For Waters, the only way he said he can keep his small shop competitive is with personal service his customers can’t find on the Internet.
“I think a lot of my customers enjoy coming to a place like this,” he said. “It’s a throwback.”
Evan Marczynski photos