How many Ph.D.s does it take to Google Cigar Festivals?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently published a study titled “Premium Cigar Festivals: A Potential Target for Marketing Restrictions” by Jenny E Ozga, Ph.D., Sabrina L. Smiley, Ph.D, Joy L. Hart, Ph.D., Lucy Popova, Ph.D., and Cassandra A Stanton, Ph.D. This study consisted of a Google search of the term “cigar festival.”  Researchers then analyzed the results under the predicate that such events were created to evade restrictions on tobacco marketing. Making no effort to research the history of cigar festivals or how they are organized, the published results yield little more than well-organized speculation.  

For example, the authors make the blind leap that events are geared towards premium cigar use initiation, citing that cigar festivals offer tobacco companies opportunities to sponsor signage and that “free samples” are distributed under gray areas of law. Only blind devotion to the “tobacco-free society” movement could find offense at a cigar company advertising to adults who willingly attend a cigar festival. Tickets regularly cost over $100-$300 per person, plus travel, food, and accommodations. That’s a heck of a price to experience your first cigar from the limited selection in a swag bag.

The rather obvious reality is that the cigar event audience is adult cigar enthusiasts. Since the enjoyment of premium cigars is not based on nicotine but on tobacco flavor, festivals offer an opportunity to meet master blenders, learn about farming, factories, and production, and engage with other adults who share the same hobby. Data shows this includes a broad cross-section of the population. But even here, the authors take offense that some festivals “target” vulnerable minorities. Perhaps the authors could use some training on diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Adults of all backgrounds can make consumer choices, and proudly, the premium cigar industry is a picture of America’s melting pot. By its nature, the industry attracts cultural influences from the different tobaccos cultivated worldwide. The retailers specializing in premium cigars are predominantly small business owners who create spaces for social gatherings in their communities. This sense of community drives many festivals to include charitable causes important to those who attend. The authors speculate that veterans’ organizations are often the beneficiaries as the industry attempts to lure the demographic into the hobby of premium cigars. 

Rather than speculate, the authors should have taken a few minutes to interview the largest cigar-based charity in U.S.–Operation: Cigars for Warriors. They would learn that the opportunity to pause for an hour with a premium cigar creates an environment for veterans to share their common experiences in a non-intoxicating environment–especially important in the regions they serve. Similarly, the Los Caidos Foundation is supported by many first responders for its work to support families of fallen police and firefighters. Organizations like the Fuente Family Foundation have built entire communities, offering education, healthcare, and economic opportunities in rural parts of Central America. This work should not be undone when the NIH’s own research shows that premium cigar use is inconsistent with patterns of addiction. Suggesting that the industry uses charity as a hook is ignorant and denigrates the integrity of the NIH and research sponsors: CASEL, NIDA, FDA CTP.  

The authors’ foundational error is overlooking that cigar festivals and associated marketing practices existed long before the Tobacco Control Act. They are not new or innovative efforts to circumvent regulation. Arguably, they were specifically omitted when the Tobacco Control Act was written into law because the limited audience was predominantly adult enthusiasts already experienced with the product, which doesn’t present a public health risk in the same manner as other products that were specifically named in the Act.  

Like FDA CTP’s effort to regulate premium cigars, “Premium Cigar Festivals: A Potential Target for Marketing Restrictions” falls short in presenting evidence that restrictions are necessary to protect the general public. The NIH publication even states, “Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analyzed in this study.”  The authors also concede that the National Academies of Science study “Health Effects and Patterns of Use of Premium Cigars” notes that risk is based on usage patterns. However, they omit that current data shows that typical use is non-daily and that the associated risk is on par with non-smokers. So why would five Ph.D. researchers be rewarded with publishing a Google search that yields no practical benefit yet makes a woefully irresponsible political declaration?

The “tobacco-free society” movement is a cult valued at over a billion dollars, investing in research, public relations, and political activism. For over a decade, the premium cigar industry has fought to expose the blind faith in their cause and willful ignorance of science regarding tobacco research. Where they’ve offered platitudes, we’ve offered facts – different tobacco products are distinct in their material, construction, usage patterns, and risk. It’s time for serious research institutions and scientific publications, especially those using government channels, to take note.