The Trojan Horse of Youth Access

This year during legislative sessions in Montana and North Dakota, members introduced bills to permit cigar bars or lounges, as exemptions to their clean air act statutes. Before the story goes further, it’s important to note that this is a model for others across the nation, and a message for all that have a passion for great cigars. 

The legislation would allow for venues that welcomed legal adult patrons to enjoy a cocktail alongside a premium cigar. You know, treat people like real adults that don’t need a babysitter. Aside from the personal enjoyment of consumers, this legislation would add to state and local revenue and promote tourism through these new venues. As we all know, cigar smokers travel, are consistently looking for new lounges to enjoy, and love telling friends about their latest discovery. 

Providing adult age verified venues should be an area of consensus among industry and public health advocates who wage legislative, regulatory, and public relations battles on youth access to tobacco products. Unfortunately, many public health groups have taken the scorched-earth approach to abolish tobacco products and neglect the health and economic evidence surrounding premium cigars and pipe tobacco. 

A case in point arose in Maine this year. Representative Matt Harrington introduced a bill to allow for non-alcoholic drinks to be served in cigar shops and lounges. That’s right – water, soft drinks and coffee. The opposition health care groups resoundingly opposed the bill, stating that it will open a tidal wave of exemptions. The Attorney General of Maine opposed because it would reverse their war on smoking and tobacco, and when Representative Harrington said “how about just water?,” one witness for testimony said, “we don’t want to make it comfortable for them to smoke.” Amazing. 

In January of 2021, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledged that premium cigars represent their lowest enforcement priority based on their lack of youth appeal. By crafting policy to allow face to face sales and consumption of alcohol and cigars together on premise, small business owners will be able to further age verification efforts. The pairing of cocktails and cigars is a natural synergy and affords some business owners the opportunity to tap into a new revenue stream. 

The two common sense bills mentioned in Montana (HB 285 tabled) and North Dakota (HB 1152 defeated) were introduced this session but were thwarted because of efforts by public health groups. In North Dakota, the American Heart Association testified in opposition, saying “HB 1152, which would allow smoking in bars that sell cigars and so-called cigar lounges would weaken existing protections and pollute the indoor air in North Dakota.” Tobacco-Free North Dakota also opposed and stated, “By eroding our indoor smoke-free air law, by making exceptions to allow even one type of product to be smoked or aerosolized indoors, we do a serious disservice to our citizens and to our state.” Several private citizens testified in favor of the legislation. 

The Premium Cigar Association supported both bills and efforts in other states to permit the sale of legal products to legal adults and will continue to do so despite public health groups mischaracterizing the effects of this legislation. 

The youth access argument is a trojan horse used by public health groups against all tobacco products that neglects the evidence that runs contrary to their narrative regarding certain tobacco categories like premium cigars. By preventing the very existence of retail lounges and cigar bars, public health groups abandon the facade of the youth access argument and move the goal post to a slippery slope argument of suggesting that allowing one product will lead to others. These groups have an incentive to cherry pick data and conflate tobacco products into one category as opposed to isolating product types to create more sound policy outcomes. 

States such as Oregon have statutory steps to be a cigar bar that includes an employee waiver, that essentially removes the debate on “involuntary exposure to second hand smoke.” Nebraska’s legislature took steps to define and exempt premium cigar lounges from a sweeping smoking ban court action. Dozens of states have recognized the difference between “a bar” and a “cigar bar and lounge” and they did so due to the demographic, public health, commercial, and product differences they represent. It’s time to take this story nationwide, and proactively seek exemptions in those states and communities that want to treat adults, like adults. 

The defeat of these bills should be a rallying cry for retailers, manufacturers, and consumers to further engage lawmakers to highlight the distinctiveness of premium cigars, and the venues that welcome them. It’s time for legislators to recognize that the consumer profile, usage patterns and public health impact are, in fact, not that which is claimed by public health groups. Our opposition is organized, well-funded, and active. PCA and its members need to address fiction with fact in the debate over the establishment of these venues.