Cigar Editorial: Analyzing Altria’s Comments to the FDA

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The thoughts expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the other members of Developing Palates or its sponsors.

Author’s note: I apologize for the hasty nature in which this article was prepared. I did not have several days with which to prepare a rebuttal to Cigar Aficionado’s recent article titled “America’s Largest Cigarette Company Comes Out Against FDA Exemption For Handmade Cigars”

Cigar Aficionado led with an article today regarding Altria’s support of the FDA regulating Premium Handmade Cigars.

One of the things I’m always sensitive to reading any media articles, cigar related or not, is the language they use to frame the article.

In this case, CA included in the title that Altria was America’s Largest Cigarette manufacturer. This seemed like an obvious attempt at skewing the readership by drawing a parallel between cigarette manufacturing, cigar manufacturing and support of FDA regulation.

Based on the comments I’ve read so far on Facebook, most responses appear to be from people that didn’t take the time to read Altria’s 9 page letter.

Marvin R. Shanken is quoted as saying “Given Altria’s dominant position in the cigarette market and the machine-made cigar industry, it is no small wonder it is against aiding handmade cigarmakers.”

In reading the 9 page statement, I think the conclusion being drawn doesn’t match the previously mentioned Altria statement.

Looking back at the history of lawsuits that have been filed against the FDA since the deeming regulations were implemented in 2014, I think it’s unrealistic at this point to think that premium handmade cigars would receive a total exemption from the FDA.

Other than some well fought delays in the implementation of those regulations, there have been no exemptions provided.

While I think various bodies like the CRA, IPCPR and others should continue to use every means at their disposal to fight for an exemption, I don’t believe those exemptions will occur. I base that on the history of tobacco legislation not only in the USA, but in other countries around the world.

My analysis of Altria’s statement is that they recognize that FDA regulation is inevitable, and to shape those regulations in a way that benefits the premium handmade cigar industry.

Breaking down Altria’s statement:

II. FDA Should Regulate All Cigars, Including Premium Cigars

“We agree with FDA that there is “no appropriate public health justification to exclude premium cigars from regulation.”

I am a cigar aficionado, and currently employed in the cigar industry as a General Manager for one of the largest tobacconist chains in Canada. I don’t for a moment believe that cigars have zero health impact, and the science has been clear that cigars do have potential to cause disease.

That isn’t to say that they carry the same health risks as cigarettes, because they do not.

But Altria isn’t saying that in their statement either.

III. FDA Has the Authority, if Certain Standards Are Satisfied, to Develop Appropriate Differential Regulation that Reflects the Unique Characteristics of the Premium Cigar Category

 “While we believe that all tobacco products should be subject to FDA’s regulatory oversight, we also accept that regulation need not be a one-size-fits-all approach. If supported by science and evidence, FDA may take into account particular attributes of a tobacco product category or particular products within a category in determining the appropriate level of regulation that should apply.”

The first part of Altria’s statement is contrary to pro-cigar and pro-industry efforts. The second half of the statement is not different, however, than any other filing from other pro-cigar and pro-industry bodies in saying that regulation should not be a one-size-fits-all approach.

They go on to say that the regulations should be based on science, and further that those regulations should define an objective definition of what a ‘premium’ cigar is. They also highlight the inconsistencies in the current submitted suggestions for those definitions.

Further down the statement, seemingly contrary to Marvin R. Shanken’s assertion that they are supporting legislation to their own benefit, they highlight research studies that premium cigar smokers don’t consider tipped or filtered products to be premium.

It doesn’t seem to be at all self serving of Altria to include those statements.

“For example, FDA should not base regulation on where a product is made, how a product is used, the frequency of price changes in the distribution chain, annual sales data, including market size and volume, or labeling, advertising, and marketing efforts. For example, FDA should not base regulation on where a product is made, how a product is used, the frequency of price changes in the distribution chain, annual sales data, including market size and volume, or labeling, advertising, and marketing efforts.”

Again the statement does not seem to be arguing that Altria as a large company should receive beneficial treatment, it calls for the fair treatment of all cigar manufacturers.

Altria suggests the following criteria to classify a premium handmade cigar:

  • Wrapped in 100 percent whole leaf
  • Contains 100 percent tobacco filler
  • Contains 100 percent tobacco binder
  • Made by hand, except to allow for the use of a manually operated machine to assist in bunching, rolling and binding
  • Contains no additives other than cigar glue and water
  • Does not contain a filter, tip or non-tobacco mouthpiece
  • Weighs at least six pounds per 1,000 count
  • Any definition of “premium” cigars should not be based on price

I fail to see how the above statement would benefit Altria’s machine-made, tipped, or cigarette manufacturing. They go on in extensive detail to highlight the fallacies in defining premium handmade cigars by price, something that pro-industry bodies have also agreed with.

With regards to registration of facilities and products, ingredients reporting, a simplified process for product modifications they signal their support, but again highlight that these processes should be of minimal burden on “premium” handmade cigars.

Once again, they aren’t calling for their mass-manufacturing, tipped, or cigarette products to receive any sort of specialized treatment.

Warning labels

This one will be contentious, but I don’t see how the premium cigar industry will be exempt from these labels with the precedent already being set around the world in other cigar markets. They do again highlight that these warnings should “take into account unique attributes of their packaging and size” in reference to premium handmade cigars.

Marketing restrictions

They support restricting youth access to cigar products and recommend that age to be set at 18. To date I have not read any arguments from anyone in the industry supporting youth access to cigars.

HPHC Testing, TPMP requirements

They advise that no standards have been set, and as such this should not be applied to premium cigars.

Further in the statement towards their closing, they again highlight the variability in cigar manufacturing, year to year variability of tobacco crops, and identify its unique nature against paper wrappers on cigarettes.

Not very self-serving for a cigarette manufacturer.

If you’ve read the article to this point, I hope that you have gone back to read Altria’s detailed response to the FDA. I strongly disagree with the Cigar Aficionado characterization of their statement, and many of the ill-conceived comments on the article being shared on social media.

I do believe that cigar industry organizations should continue to fight against all cigar regulation. To vilify companies who are trying to work within the framework of FDA legislation implemented that is done so in a logical, science based, and non-burdensome way, is ultimately self-defeating for the entire industry.

A follow-up to this editorial can be found here.

Cigar Editorial: Analyzing Altria’s Comments to the FDA
John McTavishCigar Editorial: Analyzing Altria’s Comments to the FDA

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6 comments

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  • Dave - July 31, 2018 reply

    Well done, John!

    John McTavish - July 31, 2018 reply

    Thanks Dave!

  • Kevin Keithan - August 1, 2018 reply

    Nice job covering this so fast!!

  • Mike KerkFew - August 4, 2018 reply

    If you can’t see how raising the barriers to entry would help someone already established in the business of making cigars, you probably shouldn’t write an article like this.

    John McTavish - August 5, 2018 reply

    1. The barriers already exist, they aren’t arguing for new barriers.

    2. As I’ve said in both editorials, the points they make mirror or are better defined than pro-industry lobby groups.

  • RR - August 7, 2018 reply

    Nice article.
    I’d like to note how they do talk about making sure the terms are set correctly so manufacturers can NOT dominate the industry.

    example: “Simplified process for product modifications….FDA could also consider pre-authorizing a list of tobacco types and/or approved cigar adhesives and maximum usage levels of such adhesives that “premium” cigar manufacturers may use without triggering the requirement to file an application.”

    after all, its the application process that is what is concerning to ALL cigar makers….

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