Cigar smokers like me and Jed Babbin don't hurt anybody. We cruise along, enjoying our stogies at home and at smoke shops and at the occasional cigar banquet. Many of us buy our cigars by mail, saving as much as 50 percent over store prices for the same smokes. The mail order cigar market is served by three principal companies, Cigars International in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; JR Cigars (of Route 95 billboard fame) in Burlington, North Carolina; and Thompson Cigar Company of Tampa, Florida. All three publish colorful, witty catalogs that are lots of fun.
These three firms, and others like them, will be put out of business at the blip of a legislative word processor unless public protest mounts fast.
The Senate has already passed a bill denoted S1177, banning interstate cigarette and smokeless tobacco sales. At the last moment, on December 9 of last year, just before the measure passed, someone typed some extra words in the bill: "cigars" and "all other tobacco products."
The bill has now moved to the House of Representatives as HR2824. Markup, originally scheduled for Wednesday, January 21, has apparently been delayed. There is just enough time to call or e-mail the appropriate representatives and try to have the "cigar" and "all other tobacco" language removed.
The proposed law sails under the flag of an "anti-counterfeiting" measure, seeking to eliminate the sale of cigarettes without state tax stamps, or without a given local state tax stamp. The usual "for the children and teens" pennant flies just under that one. As always, follow the money. States and localities have raised cigarette taxes to astronomical levels in recent years (Nanny Bloomberg in New York City), creating (of course) alternate sources of supply -- including bootlegging. Elementary economics. Think Prohibition.
Add to that the states' resentment of the tax-exempt status granted the Internet, and you set the stage. What happens here with cigarettes and cigars will happen, over and over again, with individual items that evade state sales taxes. The states, leaning on their representatives, want that retail tax cash. And they'll try to get it any way they can. Your favorite commercial website, whether for books, CDs, clothing, or cookware, isn't safe either.
As the form letter provided by JR Cigars to its customers points out, there is no cigar counterfeiting problem, and no teen cigar smoking problem.
The most likely reps to call on the House Judiciary Committee (where the bill is now) strike me as the ones from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida, where the three businesses most affected operate. Those representatives are:
Melissa Hart, R-Pennsylvania
Howard Coble, R-North Carolina
Melvin L. Watt, D-North Carolina
Tom Feeney, R-Florida
Ric Keller, R-Florida
I'm going to be on the phone to all of those offices today. I suggest you do the same.