The Case Against a Smoke-Free America

There is such thing as a refined taste for tobacco, and enjoying it in moderation.

Claudia Daut/Reuters

If a time traveler from the early 1990s were to arrive in the U.S. bars and restaurants of today, what would notice first? Perhaps that the food has become more interesting and varied, or that a perplexing number of diners are photographing it with their remarkable phones. The most obvious change, however, might register on the nose: the nearly complete absence of indoor smoking.

California implemented the United States' first modern statewide smoking ban in 1998. Today twenty-nine states and 703 municipalities require bars and restaurants to be smoke-free, according to data maintained by the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation (North Dakota brought the tally to thirty states this month). Tobacco use has been banished from our culinary radar along with the question "smoking or non?" Most of us don't miss it. Yet as a slew of new bans, taxes, and regulations drive smoking to the peripheries of society, it's worth giving tobacco another look.

Tobacco is viewed as pure vice by public health officials. Surgeon General Everett C. Koop famously hoped for a smoke-free America by the year 2000. Koop echoed Lucy Page Gaston, the early twentieth century prohibitionist who campaigned for "a smokeless America by 1925." This impulse was revived by Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who testified before Congress in 2003, "I see no need for any tobacco products in society."

But millions of people do see the need, and they're not all just looking for a nicotine hit. There is much more to tobacco than mass-produced cigarettes; premium tobacco is arguably every bit as artisanal as many of the other food and drink products that those of us in the culinary world obsess over. The unique leaf offers flavors that many find enticing, appearing occasionally in the works of creative chefs, bartenders, and baristas. At the French Laundry, Thomas Keller experimented successfully with desserts like coffee custard infused with tobacco. In Tampa, Cigar City Brewing crafts beers inspired by cigars. Tobacco bitters appear on fancy cocktail menus. In France, distiller Ted Breaux makes a liqueur called Perique that captures the essence of Louisiana pipe tobacco; it's a remarkable elixir with a light, tea-like quality, and alas, as of this writing not imported to the United States. (Cautionary note: Tobacco infusions can extract dangerous levels of nicotine, so anyone curious to attempt one should first do careful research.)

Links between alcohol and tobacco are not new. In Elizabethan England, the then novel act of smoking was described as "dry drinking." The metaphor is apt: Neither alcohol nor tobacco is essential to life, but both offer pleasant flavors while enhancing mood and sociality. And, of course, both are harmful when consumed in excess.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

My own introduction to tobacco came through the drink world too, though with coffee instead of alcohol. In my days as a barista, one of my best customers was a fitness instructor and avid cigar smoker. This combination perplexed me until I realized that he talked about his cigars the same way I talked about coffee. The varietal of the plant and the origin of the leaf mattered, a Cameroon wrapper tasting differently than one from Nicaragua. Flavors ranged from light claro tobacco to deep, dark oscuro, much as coffee roasts have their own spectrum from light to dark. I eventually realized that cigars offered rewards similar to those of the food and drink with which I was already enamored.

Though access to other quality goods has expanded in recent years, tobacco is ever more restricted. Smoking bans make it difficult to enjoy. Taxes make it expensive. And the Food and Drug Administration, which may soon regulate cigars, threatens to stifle the industry with heavy-handed rules.

Smoking bans are the most obvious difficulty for those of us who enjoy cigars. A good cigar could take an hour or more to burn, so huddling in the cold and rain to have one isn't an appealing option. Smoking bans are an inconvenience to all smokers, but for cigar smokers they can mean not lighting up at all.

Not content with banning smoking in most indoor environments, legislators have moved on to shutting down the remaining exceptions and extending bans outdoors and into private homes. The bans creep steadily forward, beginning with seemingly reasonable exemptions that are soon eroded. Boston, Massachusetts is a prime example. The city's original ban grandfathered in six existing cigar bars. This was apparently six too many for the city of more than 600,000 people, so a later ban wiped out that allowance and extended to outdoor patios. Boston's remaining cigar bars are slated to shutter after a grace period, a delay granted because, as one member of the Boston Public Health Commission so generously put it, "We wanted to give them a bit more time to get used to the idea that they'll have to close."

Boston is far from alone. New York is banning smoking in parks. California has banned it on many beaches. In much of sunny Los Angeles one can no longer smoke on restaurant patios. The entire town of Calabasas, California, is smoke-free in public places. San Francisco suburb San Rafael has banned smoking in all multi-unit residences. In Oregon it's essentially illegal to open a new cigar bar or smoking lounge. In North Dakota voters recently approved a ban that includes tobacco shops. In rainy Washington, even an indoor private smoking club protected by a twenty-five foot airlocked walkway was deemed to be in violation of the statewide ban. I could go on. Non-smokers understandably prefer to avoid secondhand smoke, but really, where's a smoker supposed to go?

Taxes are another threat. As the percentage of smokers has fallen, tobacco has become an easy target for taxation. Tobacco taxes present an attractive opportunity to raise revenue while discouraging an unpopular activity.

The argument for tobacco taxes appears solid at first glance: Smokers impose health costs on the government, so it's fair to make them pay for it. However the fiscal argument is not as clear as it seems. To put it bluntly, heavy smokers pay a lot of taxes and then die early. That's nothing to cheer, but it does reduce governments' health and retirement costs. Numerous studies, including a commentary from the Congressional Budget Office published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, confirm that in the long-run smokers are generally self-financing.

Cigars and pipe tobacco have faced less tax pressure than cigarettes, but that is changing. The 2009 Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act raised tobacco taxes across the board, including an eight-fold tax increase on large cigars. An unintended consequence of this law has been a shift in consumption. Pipe tobacco, which is taxed at a lower rate than cigarettes and roll-your-own tobacco, boomed in popularity as smokers began buying it to make their own cigarettes. Similarly, producers of small cigars added weight to their products to qualify as lesser taxed large cigars. The result is that an unusual coalition that includes public health groups, cigarette producers, and government agencies has come together to call for fixing the disparity.

Higher taxes would be detrimental to local smoke shops, among the few refuges left to cigar smokers. Some customers are simply priced out of the market, while others turn to online sales. And floor taxes, which are applied all at once to a store's existing stock, can trigger such a substantial one-time cost that they shut down stores entirely.

Regis Duvignau/Reuters

Finally, there looms the threat of the Food and Drug Administration, which is signaling its intent to begin regulating premium tobacco. Anyone who liked clove cigarettes, which have been banned along with all flavorings aside from menthol, has already felt the pinch of new regulations. A 2011 report from the FDA suggests also banning menthol cigarettes, despite finding insufficient evidence that they are inherently more dangerous than their unflavored counterparts.

Producers of premium tobacco are understandably skittish about what such a mindset may mean for their industry. I spoke with Jeff Borysiewicz, Board Chairman of Cigar Rights of America and President of the Corona Cigar Company, about what he worries FDA regulation may entail. While this is inherently speculative, among the possibilities he cited are restrictions that would eliminate online sales or walk-in humidors, forced display of graphic warning labels on packaging, new fees and taxes, bans on promotional giveaways and events, regulation of nicotine content, and a requirement that new blends be approved by the agency prior to sale. Prior approval could be time-consuming, expensive, and may block some blends from ever coming to market. There is also the possibility that flavored cigars -- not just "candy" flavors but also adult flavors like rum and cognac -- could be forbidden, a measure pushed by several United States senators and already enacted in New York City.

Such regulations would drastically impact the cigar industry. In response, cigar advocates have introduced legislation to exempt premium cigars from FDA regulation. H.R. 1639, the "Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act," would create a new definition for large cigars, requiring them to weigh at least six pounds per thousand count, contain no filter, and be wrapped in tobacco leaf. This definition is designed to distinguish traditional premium cigars from the "drugstore cigars" that have boomed in popularity thanks to tax and regulatory changes. Given the uncertainty of FDA regulation and the potential hostility the agency may hold toward the industry, this would be a sensible step.

More generally, we must stop treating smoking as pure vice. Lost in discussions of the very real problem of how to reduce deaths from smoking is an acknowledgement that tobacco has redeeming qualities, that it can be enjoyed in moderation, and that not all forms of tobacco use are equally dangerous. We can and should educate consumers about the risks of tobacco and tax it appropriately. But we should also respect the rights of consenting adults to gather in private places and decide for themselves what to ingest into their bodies. That doesn't necessitate going back to the days of smoking on airplanes, but it does require fighting back against the extreme measures sought by today's anti-smoking movement. It requires letting smokers have a few rooms of their own and not destroying the tobacco industry with excessive taxes and regulations.

I know that my own life has been improved by friendships deepened over sessions with cigars, and the match of a good cigar with an equally good rum or whiskey is as compelling as any wine and food pairing I've encountered. Having overcome my own anti-smoking prejudice, I've learned that it's an indulgence worth defending.

There's a funny legend about Sir Walter Raleigh, the Englishman who helped popularize pipe tobacco brought over from the New World. A servant, seeing him exhaling smoke, concluded that Raleigh was on fire and promptly doused him. Today's anti-smoking activists understand tobacco about as poorly as Raleigh's servant and have acquired some very large pails of water. Let's not allow them to extinguish something wonderful.