2009 promises to be a year for change. A new Presidential administration, a new political direction for the country, a new Facebook layout, a new guy playing Jason in the Friday the 13th movies.
Cigar smokers are bracing for change too. A recent bill designed to increase funding for child health insurance will also increase federal tobacco taxes by a big margin: a sixty-two cent increase on cigarette packs, a whole dollar on little cigars, and thirty-five cents on cigarillos.
Tobacco taxes on large cigars will be capped at just over forty cents per stogie. Those who hope to hide out from the new increases by rolling their own smokes won't be exempt, either: roll-your-own tobacco products also face a commensurate increase.
This is the first major increase in federal excise taxes on tobacco in over ten years. A 1997 excise tax was phased in via a two-stage process: a ten-cent increase in 2000 and another five-cent increase in 2002. This new tax will hit all at once.
The SCHIP increase has public-health advocates in a good mood, but some cigar smokers are, understandably, less excited, and a few are already screaming for President Obama's head. There's at least one cigar company that disagrees, though.
A California-based company (briefly) made a killing during the Inauguration fever of January 2009 with a Nicaragua-made cigar named after the hugely-popular President. Cigar lovers say this special model will probably be more in demand among political-memorabilia collectors than cigar smokers themselves, however.
Alongside this federal SCHIP-related increase, several cash-strapped states (nearly all the states are cash-strapped these days) are contemplating their own, independent tobacco tax increases, including Pennsylvania (where the measure enjoys Governor Ed Rendell's warm advocacy), Arkansas and Kentucky.
New smoking restrictions have been enacted in Virginia, typically among the strongest pro-smoking states in the Union. But this ban is criticized by anti-smoking groups for not going far enough in restricting public smoking, which brings us to the other noticeable trend among smoke-banning states--one considerably more encouraging for cigar smokers.
There's other news for cigar fans--some of it doesn't even involve higher tobacco taxes or smoking bans, either. While the popularity of smoking bans seems to be increasing nation-wide, so is the trend of writing special exemptions into such bans, allowing some smoking in designated locations--a compromise that cigar lovers, cigar-lounge owners, and the rest of the world can live with.
The Laguna Beach, California, City Council has pioneered this fair-minded approach, recently voting to allow smoking of all kinds at tobacco shops and lounges in the otherwise smoke-free city. This is the same city council that pioneered harsh anti-smoking legislation in the early 1990s, passing one of the country's first bans on smoking in all public places in 1993. (This ballot measure enjoyed a heavy endorsement from voters in the 1994 state elections.) Good news for smokers--especially those who live in Laguna Beach, if there still are any!
Cigars also made early-2009 headlines thanks to the Michael Phelps case. Summer Olympics hero Michael Phelps found himself the object of unwanted attention from newspapers--not to mention South Carolina police--when a photo was published showing him taking bong hits during a December 2008 party. South Carolina police have since arrested several of Phelps's friends shown in the photo, and have announced their attention to arrest the world's greatest swimmer as well, should the opportunity present itself, despite a groundswell of pro-Phelps public sentiment.
In all the controversy, Gurkha Cigars offered Phelps a fairly large chunk of money to serve as its "smokesperson"--figuring, very reasonably, that premium cigars are one form of smoking that won't get Phelps in trouble with South Carolina police. No word yet on whether the world's strongest pair of lungs will add Gurkhas to the list of smokeable substances that he's on record as enjoying.
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