Feb 13, 2024 - Health

Cigar makers fight proposed ban as Biden weighs tobacco curbs

Illustration of a lit cigar with a "no" symbol on the label

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the Biden administration mulls a politically sensitive decision on whether to ban menthol cigarettes, another corner of the tobacco industry — cigar makers — is fighting to be left alone.

The big picture: The fate of a proposed ban on flavored cigars has been linked to a separate and closely scrutinized proposal to outlaw menthol cigarettes that's been under White House review for months.

  • The cigar industry and advocates for consumer choice are lobbying the administration to drop the proposed flavored cigar ban, arguing the products have wrongly been lumped into concerns about menthol cigarettes.
  • Health advocates alarmed over the delayed menthol decision say it's just as important to follow through on the flavored cigar ban to close loopholes the industry can exploit to hook people, especially kids, on tobacco.

What they're saying: "My fear would be that if the Biden administration or any administration doesn't stick to the science," said Yolonda Richardson, CEO of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

  • "The science should tell us what regulatory pathway we should be taking," she said. "For the industry, the delay is great because if they delay, it basically says, 'The science isn't important. What's important is this political thing over here.'"

Catch up quick: The Food and Drug Administration in October sent finalized tobacco bans to the White House budget office, the final step before they could be issued.

  • In its proposal, the FDA said more than a half-million U.S. youth use flavored cigars and that banning flavors would help reduce their appeal and the likelihood of experimentation among young people.
  • 1.6% of youth report smoking cigars, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey released in November. That's far less than e-cigarettes (7.7%) but is similar to use of combustible cigarettes (1.6%) and nicotine pouches (1.5%)

Zoom in: A ban could have a major impact on the cigar market.

  • Sales of flavored cigars — the most popular of which are fruit-flavored — jumped more than 50% roughly a decade after bans on flavored cigarettes began in 2009, according to a study in Tobacco Regulatory Science.
  • Flavored cigars now make up more than half of the cigar market, the researchers found.
  • Two- and three-packs that cost much less than cigar boxes also jumped from 1% of cigar sales to 40% by 2015, per the study.
  • Those findings show how the industry adapts to regulation to find new customers, said Rose Marie Robertson, chief science officer of the American Heart Association.
  • "It is remarkable to see how quickly new products can be developed when there's heat on the industry," she said.
  • The Cigar Association of America, a leading industry group, declined to comment for this story.

Yes, but: But critics of the potential ban on flavored cigars, particularly the hand-rolled premium kind that aficionados often pair with luxury booze, say the products are typically used less frequently and carry far different public health risks.

  • "What distinguishes cigars from menthol cigarettes is the pattern of use," said Guy Bentley, the director of consumer freedom at the libertarian think tank Reason Foundation.
  • While 76% of cigarette smokers use the products daily, only 5% of premium cigar smokers and 22% of non-premium cigar smokers do, per a 2022 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
  • While that report found strong evidence for health risks associated with cigar use, it also found "insufficient evidence" for increased health risks associated with occasional or non-daily exclusive cigar use, Bentley pointed out.
  • "When we're talking about harm reduction, which is what we ought to be talking about, don't go to where the problem is not," said Richard Williams, former director for social sciences at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "The problem is not in cigars, flavored or otherwise."

What's next: The FDA on Monday reiterated that the proposed flavored cigar ban is in the final step of the rulemaking process.

  • Formally, the Biden administration has said it will issue final rules by March, but an internal deadline to formalize the menthol ban has already passed, per the Washington Post.
  • "As we've made clear, this product standard remains at the top of our priorities," the FDA said in a statement.
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