Last night, the heads of over a dozen local premium cigar makers were gathered together in a single smoky room for the first time ever. Nick Perdomo, owner of Tabacalera Perdomo, a handmade cigar shop in Doral, hosted the cigar barons, among them
the owners of Camacho cigars, Toraño cigars, Drew Estate Cigars, and Alec Bradley
Cigars. (the Barzinis, Tattaglias, and Corleones couldn’t make it).
“It’s the first time in the history of the industry that we had everyone in the industry in one room,” says Selim Hanono, a sales manager for Camacho Cigars. “These are our competitors, all of us compete for the same shelf space on a day to day basis – but we came together for one cause. This has never happened.”
That “one cause” is a sudden threat to the premium cigar industry in the United States as we know it. Just a few days ago, cigar owners caught wind of a little-known provision of the current incarnation of the SCHIP –State Children’s Health Insurance Program – bill, currently before the Senate, which would increase the tax on premium cigars by (up to) 20,000 percent.
That’s right, 20,000 percent. From the current tax on premium cigars –a nickel -- to (again, up to) ten dollars per cigar. And when a four dollar cigar becomes a fourteen-dollar cigar, it doesn’t take Algebra 1 to figure out that cigar makers (and smokers) are in trouble.
Christian Eiroa, third-generation owner of Camacho Cigars, was among the most vocal at the meeting, exhorting the other thirty-odd tabacaleros – all of them owners of small, family-run businesses – to join him in a massive letter-writing campaign. They plan to distribute some 200,000 letters to every tobacco retailer in the country, as well as to Congress.
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As two ceiling fans turned just enough to distribute the cigar smoke to every corner of the room, the group debated the fine points of what such a letter would say. Being the sort of men (except for two women) they were, there was a lot of “Lemme tell you” and “Lemme ask you a question,” and “Let’s stop right there.”
Still, within an hour and a half or so, they decided (rather amazingly) to create a committee of five people – an odd number, so that a vote within the committee could not be tied – to draft the letter and send it out for approval.
As of noon today, the letter still had not been completed. President Bush is expected to veto the bill (not in support of the cigar industry, but because he thinks that public health care is for commie terrorists). But that’s little comfort to Eiroa. “I’m tired, man. I’m tired of worrying about this every time a new tax comes up.”