Saturday, May 8, 2010

Fighting The NYC Ban

On May 4, 2010 the New York Tobacconists Association (NYTA) appeared before the NYC Board of Health to make their case for not banning flavored tobaccos: including cigar and pipe tobaccos, but not menthol, wintergreen, and mint flavorings - typical hypocritical exclusion of 'big tobacco' products, just like the FDA law. This ridiculous law was written, probably with great assistance from the heart, lung, and cancer societies, in order to 'protect children': even though it is already illegal to sell tobacco products to children. While the Board of Health has already written the law, and it has been passed by the city council, there is still a chance to protect tobacconists from this devastating and draconian law. Impassioned and articulate speeches were delivered by Ron Melendi, CMT, Michael Herklots, CMT, Jorge Armenteros, CMT (me), representatives of Gotham Government Relations (who represent the NYTA), and others. While it is too early to tell if we are making significant progress, there is a chance we can keep the Board from enforcing this ridiculous law inside of retail tobacconists. If this law passes and is enforced in NYC it will spread throughout the nation, so it is a critical fight for all tobacconists. This is the fight of our lives because the 'Empire State' is ground zero for the Nanny State in America, and whatever passes in NY will surely follow everywhere else.

FYI: View the article about the meeting by Greg Mottola of Cigar Aficionado, and the text of my speech is below...

NYC Health Committee: 5.4.2010
3rd Floor, Rm 330
125 Worth St. (b/w Lafayette & Centre)
New York, NY 10013

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. My name is Jorge Armenteros and I am the president of Tobacconist University. We are the organization that educates and certifies consumers and professional tobacconists – just like a sommelier organization does for wine. We have over 350 Certified Tobacconists and apprentices around the world with the highest concentration of Certified Master Tobacconists right here in NYC. People come here from all over the world to visit these luxury goods specialists in the same way they come to visit great chefs and sommeliers…. The products we sell are rare and special.

As a retail tobacconist and one who represents hundreds of similarly honorable professionals, the most important thing I can tell you is that there is nothing more reprehensible to us than the thought or act of selling tobacco to children. The first line of our code of ethics & standards states that we will “obey and enforce all local, state and federal laws regarding tobacco age/use restrictions.”

Retail tobacconists, by and large, are small family run businesses, many with generations of traditions and important cultural history. We pay our mortgages, and raise and educate our children just like you. And the thought of selling tobacco products to children is despicable to us.


The next point I want to make is that there is a world of difference between mass produced, homogenized, and chemically enhanced cigarettes and the world of luxury, premium, and natural cigars and pipe tobaccos.

While it may take a few months to grow, dry, and manufacture a cigarette, it takes years to cultivate premium cigars and pipe tobaccos. We estimate that every one of the 6 to 8 leaves in a premium cigar is touched at least 300 times by human hands, and it can take up to ten years to make a premium cigar. Those 6 to 8 leaves are picked at different times, from different plants in different farms and countries. It is an extraordinary process that requires dozens, if not hundreds, of highly skilled and trained artisans to turn a rustic leaf into an organoleptic delicacy – a sensory pleasure. Premium cigars, pipes, and pipe tobaccos represent generations of knowledge, culture, and skill; much of which was already invented before Europeans discovered the new world.

Premium cigars and pipe tobaccos are curated like rare horticultural specimens. They are cultivated from seed varietals that have taken generations to breed and these varietals have very little in common with the plants that are used for cigarettes. It’s like the difference between a bicycle and a Rolls Royce…

From a chemical standpoint, cigarettes are acidic and they are meant to be inhaled into the lungs, whereas cigars are alkaline, which is not conducive to inhalation. By and large, cigar and pipe smokers do not inhale and this dramatically affects their relationship with the nicotine in the plant. (BTW nicotine is also found in tomatoes, green peppers, potatoes, and eggplant) The lung specific delivery method and concentration of nicotine, coupled with the instantaneous effects of inhalation, are what make cigarette smoking a potentially compulsive and/or addictive behavior. This is profoundly different than the effects of premium cigars and pipe tobaccos which are not inhaled. The average premium cigar smoker enjoys less than two cigars per week.

Premium cigars and pipe tobaccos are savored for their taste and aroma. Cigar and pipe smokers do not smoke when they have a stuffed up nose cold because that prohibits them from tasting the product – which is the purpose of the product. Taste and aroma, relaxation, camaraderie, celebration, and savoring your time: that is why people smoke cigars and pipes.

I can tell you that most days non-smokers come into our shops just to enjoy the aroma. They tell us about their fond memories of a father or relative who smoked, and sometimes buy an aromatic (i.e. flavored) pipe tobacco just to enjoy the smell in their home or car.

Smell is the human sense most closely linked to memory and emotion. Positive smells anchor fond memories and experiences; they relax us and help us decompress; they enhance the quality of our lives. People who like the smell of cigars and pipe tobaccos do so passionately – it is a quality of life issue. Conversely, those who dislike the smell of “tobacco” usually have a very strong and negative emotional response to it.

It is estimated that less than 5% of the population occasionally smokes pipes and cigars. We are a tiny minority, with unique tastes. But taste is by nature a personal preference. And as Thomas Jefferson said “taste cannot be controlled by law”. Taste is also something that cannot be measured or judged. Taste is subjective. People will like what they like. While you may enjoy clove or anise in your food, I do not. But I respect your taste, and I humbly ask that you respect and protect ours.

Thank you very much.