Cash Strapped States and The Politics of Distraction…Prepare Now, to Fight off 2021 Threats

By: Glynn Loope, Executive Director, Cigar Rights of America & Josh Habursky, Director of Government Affairs, Premium Cigar Association

No one really ‘wishes time away,’ but obviously 2020 has taxed everyone’s patience in this regard. As we are all aware, between a global pandemic, historic economic trauma, political gridlock, regulatory uncertainty and a looming national election, everyone hopes 2021 will bring stability, personal, community and national economic security and good health…and a time of peace, perhaps while enjoying a moment with a fine premium cigar.

But if you’re in the actual business of cigars, 2021 may bring its own set of challenges, starting in your state capitol. While most community cigar shops by January will hopefully be coming off of a successful holiday season of sales and ushering in the New Year, we can predict today that there will be a host of new political threats that are being plotted in many state capitols even now before they gavel in. While we don’t mean to be casting a new state of gloom, especially at this tumultuous moment in history, it is important to be realistic, and prepared, for what the political crystal ball may now be telling us and what could be in store for premium tobacco retailers and manufacturers.

As communities and states confront record budget deficits due to the national recession, mandated business closures, and the general fear of travel, personal shopping, and general isolation; tax collections are at record lows. To balance budgets, revenue hungry politicians will be looking under every rock to balance budgets, as required by law everywhere except Washington, D.C., and that’s why we have to prepare, now. The so called “sin taxes” including tobacco tends to be the first agenda item for state legislatures looking to fill their budgets void.

Then there is the ‘politics of distraction.’ This means that while elected officials should be thinking about COVID linked community health issues, public safety, and education of our children, some will be using valuable time to debate tobacco regulation, sales and use bans, nicotine testing, and related issues that truly epitomize a case study in misplaced priorities. We have even seen states chase windmills in the midst of the pandemic trying to restrict and curtail the legal purchase of legal products by legal adults.

However, in the realm of tobacco legislation, there is always a bottomless pit of attempts to regulate, tax, or generally infringe upon the production, sale, or enjoyment of perfectly legal tobacco products. Make no mistake, the opposition that promotes, drafts and advocates for these measures are sophisticated, dedicated, and have a vast network of supporters and resources at their disposal to attack the simple ability to enjoy a cigar, or run a retail establishment that sells to discerning adults.

2021 will be no different. Hundreds of bills will be introduced in the coming months, and many will demand attention from pro-business advocacy organizations, working to protect the interests of community tobacconists, the consumer, and manufacturers alike.

While there is always a proliferation of legislation to tax or prohibit use of tobacco products at the state level, we now have to be mindful of the ever more creative approaches the forces of tobacco control are taking to enact an agenda that is nothing short of prohibition. Aside from the routine tax increase proposals directed at tobacco products the industry should be mindful of a few policies that are on the horizon or part of the 2021 State Legislative Forecast:

  1.  Indiana State Senator Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne has historically introduced a bill which would repeal what is labeled as the “smoker’s bill of rights,” which prohibits employers from testing or controlling the use of tobacco, even outside of the place of employment.

    The action could allow employers to withhold health coverage, and even to deny employment, including dismissal, for tobacco use – on their own time, in their own home, in a local lounge – anywhere, anytime. It only takes one bill in Indiana, for it to become introduced in a dozen other states, even if it fails in Indianapolis. Speaking of which, similar legislation was introduced in Kentucky. Bad ideas spread and we cannot afford to set a bade precedent in one state the quickly multiplies into a national issue.

  2. The other tactic being attempted throughout the nation is casting tobacco associated questions to a referendum. Oregon and Colorado are current battlegrounds in this regard. You see, when the opposition can’t get their way through the legislative process, they advocate “Let the People Decide!” Such measures are expensive, and difficult to defeat. Fighting referendums are particularly difficult to challenge when you cannot mobilize grassroots through face to face interactions, live events, and briefings.

    We call it The Bloomberg Syndrome, named in ‘honor’ of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has dedicated a piece of his fortune to advancing tobacco control. The anti-tobacco political playbook spreads based upon the ‘agenda of the year,’ by attempts at social engineering by demonizing certain products by use of questionable science, or manipulated polling data.

  3. Other legislative proposals also include mandates on packaging, while not differentiating between types of cigars, efforts to control the number of cigars in a package, or imposition of floor stocks taxes, and increases in licensure fees.

  4. This list of potential problem legislation continues and can include whether you can have smoking if you’re not in a free-standing building, regulating smoking in gaming facilities (using COVID as the excuse) or new zoning restrictions on where retail establishments can be located,. These proposals will often place additional burdens on local law enforcement by requiring them to cite patrons to enforce local smoking bans. Indeed, you would think there are higher priorities given the current political climate and societal needs.

The Premium Cigar Association and Cigar Rights of America have reviewed the national political landscape as it exists today. We are breaking the nation down by region, and assessing existing and historic legislative records. We intend to support, reinforce, and work to defeat (or support) all bills directed at your community cigar shop, brand, manufacturing facility, and lounges for our premium cigar community. As it stands today, we can already foresee issues in Michigan, Nevada, New York, New Jersey, and the immediate referendum threats in Colorado and Oregon. Sales ban bills, disguised as “flavor bans” will spread due to actions in California, and smoking bans disguised as COVID related, will be introduced. We can predict seventeen states with issues, and it’s not even January. This is just the beginning.

As in past years, shop owners and patrons need to let their voices be heard. In the case of PCA and CRA, we will keep a weekly posting of legislation impacting the retail, enjoyment or production of premium handmade cigars, from capitol to capitol. Petition and advocacy campaigns will be made available, as well as legislative testimony, grassroots strategies, coalition building, lobby days and a barrage of communications with legislators. We will work to build and strengthen the state association network, and to engage every possible consumer in your state. It will take an unprecedented level of engagement, but the future of this proud artisan industry, depends upon it.

The theme needs to be, there are indeed, higher priorities. Protecting Main Street American small businesses, that are predominately family owned and in many cases, passed down from generation to generation.

That, is worth fighting for.  We hope that you will join us in this fight and support the premium cigar industry through Cigar Rights of America, the Premium Cigar Association, your state association, and supporting your local cigar shop. 2020 has certainly presented the industry a slate of challenges, but it has not extinguished our passion to keep our community lit.