Why Lobbying Alone Won't Protect the Cigar Industry, and What Will
This guest post comes courtesy of Matthias Clock, chief editor at FineTobaccoNYC.
For the past decade, the story of the American cigar industry has been unique: a quiet but rapid expansion in the popularity and growth in sales alongside a massive increase in taxes and legislation. To protect the industry and consumers from excessive taxes and regulation, groups like Cigar Rights of America (CRA) and the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) have stepped in to lobby for more breathing room for American cigar smokers. Valiant as these efforts are, they will ultimately fail without a stronger and livelier community standing by cigars as a product. That doesn't mean the efforts of CRA and others are not critical. They are. But alone, they are not enough.
Why can't organizations like the CRA and IPCPR protect our beloved pastime? Let me clear the air first by saying, the reason isn't incompetence. The CRA, IPCPR, and smaller organizations like New York based Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (CLASH) have skilled leadership and have won a handful of victories. It also isn't because their arguments aren't good ones. Cigars are as similar to cigarettes as a bottle of fine wine is to a can of PBR. Cigar marketing is vastly different than how cigarette companies market. The list goes on.
The reason these lobbyists won't win with their arguments alone is because, frankly, most of those in office and in the health establishment simply aren't listening. The intellectual bias of policy-makers and health officials against smoking, along with the social stigma and political pressures against smoking, are enough to ensure that any argument for cigar rights is either a) viewed as morally bankrupt or, b) too politically risky. We watched the same story unfold with the cigarette companies in the second half of the 20th century.
Look at it another way: how many sponsors of H.R. 1639 and S. 1461 do you think already smoked cigars before anyone from CRA or IPCPR asked for their endorsement? My guess is, a lot. My guess is, those currently sponsoring H.R. 1639/S.1461 support it because they already enjoy cigars themselves, have experienced the friendliness of the community, and don't want to see it go away. Convincing someone with no experience of the art, enjoyment, and community of cigars will be asking them to take the bullet of being a "pro-smoking" politician for a tiny subset of Americans called cigar smokers. It just won't happen.
My point is, appealing to the reason of unreasoning people won't work. And if cold, logical argumentation of the case for cigars won't work, perhaps it is time for another approach. Perhaps it is time to demonstrate why we love cigars, and win the hearts and minds of the public, politicians and other appointed officials.
This is no small task, but fortunately for us, it should be a fun one, because it hinges on cigar lovers being more active in enjoying cigars with each other, and in serving the community. I think of leaders in the industry like Michael Herklots of Nat Sherman, who holds an annual birthday cigar-auction to benefit the community. Or Senor Cigar of New York's Grown & Sexy cigar group, who raises money for the New York Kidney Walk. And then there are the owners of local brick and mortar shops like Refugio Cigar House or Papa Juan's who sell premium, hand-rolled cigars that prove that cigar smoking is about craftsmanship and taste, not nicotine and chain-smoking.
It was in the spirit of aficionados like these that I started FineTobaccoNYC in 2010. Since that first event, we have hosted or sponsored over 50 events, and helped launch up-and-coming New York City cigar lounges like Refugio Cigar House, Papa Juan's, X.O. Cigar Lounge, and more. FineTobaccoNYC also played a major role in introducing some of the best boutique brands to the New York City market (Reinado and Hispaniola, to name two). We are over 500 strong in membership, and growing. But what I'm most proud of is when someone comes to an event and sees just how precious and unique this small family we call the cigar community is. Whether they smoke or not, my friends who come and enjoy a drink and conversation see right away that cigars are different than cigarettes, both in composition and in philosophy.
If we can show more people (that includes elected officials) what cigars are all about, our efforts to protect our hobby from absurd taxation and business-crushing regulation will be strengthened. Heck, if the misconceptions fueling the clamp-down on cigars are corrected, we may not even need to spend so much time lobbying the government for the ability to sit outside and enjoy a cigar.
All of that being said, here are a few recommendations I have for the cigar community at large:
- Start/join a cigar group in your city: Can't find people to smoke with? Start a cigar club in your city. Make a blog, start meeting just with a few friends, and then have them invite their friends. Put together a mailing list to stay organized. Before you know it, you'll have a solid community of cigar smokers together that are able to communicate better with each other and encourage each other to take part in legislative efforts that protect your right to smoke. If you live in New York, you can join us at FineTobaccoNYC for a smoke by signing up for our event mailing list.
- Support your local shops: Yes, it is easier and often cheaper to buy online. But it is the guys running the local shops, giving us all a place to smoke and converse, that are the glue holding the community together.
- Write a letter: Send a personal letter to your congressman explaining why you don't want to see your rights infringed. A CRA form letter is all well and good, but many congressmen read their mail and sometimes a personal letter is more valuable than a lobbyist or a suitcase full of money.
- Join the CRA: Cigar Rights of America is fighting for our ability to enjoy a cigar. Help them continue to advocate cigar rights by joining as a member.
- Join the discussion: don't stay silent if you think you have something to add to the discussion about cigar rights in America. The more chatter, the more people will hear us and realize we're not chainsmoking nicotine addicts.
In conclusion, we need more than a legislative effort. We need a cultural one that stands on a foundation of strong community and passion for the product. If we had more leaders like Herklots, or the late Manny Ferrero, who create social settings and benefit the local community, the misconceptions about cigars and cigar smokers would stick much less than they currently do.
Matthias Clock is the founder and Editor in Chief of FineTobaccoNYC. He enjoys puffing cigars, boxing, dancing Argentine tango, and playing the piano. FineTobaccoNYC is a team of six cigar lovers in New York City dedicated to promoting the art, culture, and enjoyment of fine tobacco. You can sign up for New York City cigar event invites and learn more about the team at www.finetobacconyc.com.