When the Tobacco Control Act was signed in 2009, it had the admirable goals of eliminating youth smoking and reducing tobacco-related harms. President Obama called the bill the “kids tobacco legislation,” and vowed that the “law will reduce the number of American children who pick up a cigarette and become adult smokers.”
But he was clear that the law would allow also “adults to make their own choices.” In fact, one of the key provisions of the TCA—which gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco products—is to continue to permit the sale of tobacco products to adults.
Good news: Today cigar smoking among youth is at an all-time low. Past month use of cigars by 12- to 17-year-olds declined from 4.5 percent in 2002 to .08 percent in 2020, according to the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
And youth usage of flavored cigars is so low as to be miniscule. Today, while just 0.75 percent of youth use cigars of any kind, only .29 percent used flavored cigars in the past 30 days, according to the FDA’s own Population Assessment Tobacco and Health Survey (PATH). That borders on the unmeasurable.
With vigilance, we are well on our way toward the goal of eliminating youth usage of cigars.
But, what about the goal of preserving adult choice? Sadly, that record is much more clouded. On May 4, 2022, FDA took the unprecedented step of proposing a flavored cigar ban. On Aug. 2, the comments closed on this historic regulatory overreach, with over 70,000 comments posted, the vast majority opposed to the ban.
A flavored cigar prohibition, based on the government’s own data, hits squarely at the adult consumer. This is precisely what Congress told FDA not to do, and President Obama in signing the bill said it would not do. While the FDA-proposed ban is well-intentioned, it would have little impact on youth cigar smoking rates.
Basic math tells us that, when starting near a miniscule level, it’s hard to go much lower. But efforts by industry, public health, and law enforcement that have been responsible for the dramatic decline are well-positioned to continue to be successful. Further, there will be dramatic economic consequences.
The Cigar Association of America estimates the U.S. flavored cigar market at approximately 6 billion flavored cigars produced annually (2021), worth over $4.7 billion at retail. A recent economic analysis showed that the ban would reduce sales by $3.8 billion, causing some thousands of workers to lose their jobs across America, and leading to a massive loss in federal, state, and local tax revenues of over $750 million per year. And those are just US impacts; the Dominican Republic and Honduras rely heavily on cigar exports and would be devastated by the lost trade.
While the FDA is seeking to ban flavored cigars, they are products that have been used by adults for literally hundreds, if not thousands of years. The Aztecs and other native peoples smoked flavored tobacco, and Montezuma himself reportedly enjoyed a flavored after-dinner smoke.
In the 1600s, when Amsterdam was the tobacco capital of Europe, flavorings included lavender, nutmeg, rosemary, coriander, dill, and vinegar. In the 1700s, cigars were commonly soaked in rum or wine. In the 1800s, manufacturers were well-aware that brand preferences were related to flavor ingredients, and the most typical were licorice, molasses, honey, and rum.
There were regional differences too, with the American South favoring the sweetest cigar variations, while in the more temperate latitudes moderately or lightly flavored blends were most popular with adult smokers. Right now, flavored cigars are sold by law-abiding, tax-paying manufacturers and retailers.
Consumers can have confidence in the quality products that they purchase. But a ban on flavored cigars would take these products out of a regulated, tax-paying marketplace, and lead to them being sold in black markets where product quality will range from questionable to dangerous. FDA justifies this drastic step on distorted scientific evidence, with a total disregard for its economic impact, and most importantly, in complete violation of the congressionally mandated guidance for rulemaking in this area.
The proposed ban is a solution in search of a problem. To preserve the adult choice that Congress and President Obama guaranteed, when it comes to cigars, FDA should let adults be adults and withdraw the proposed ban.