Over the weekend, Jas Sum Kral sent out a press release announcing a new line of flavored cigars sold under the “Munchies” name with the first flavor being Rocky Road and images of chocolate ice cream with marshmallows on the packaging.
It takes a lot for me to have a visceral reaction to a press release announcing a cigar, but this was one of the few moments over the last decade where that happened. It upset me that we at halfwheel were being asked to participate in promoting a product that is almost certainly going to be destructive to the industry as a whole. Quite frankly, a product that will probably cause my business some pain at some point the future.
So rather than writing a news story about it, here at halfwheel it is getting covered in the form of an editorial. The full press release is at the bottom of this post. Internally, we debated whether or not this editorial was fair to Jas Sum Kral. Admittedly, we don’t write regular editorials bashing the decisions of companies. But I don’t hate Jas Sum Kral or its founder Riste Ristevski. I don’t think Riste is dumb; in fact, I think Riste is not only quite knowledgeable about FDA but also pretty cunning in general. What makes it more frustrating in the case of Jas Sum Kral is that I think Riste knows exactly what he’s doing.
But this isn’t really about Jas Sum Kral, it isn’t really about one cigar, or even one company. It’s about a handful of companies that need to change the branding of certain cigars they sell before the consequences to some of their actions get real.
I’m not here to write that everyone in the cigar industry is a good person. I’m not asking you to join into some singing of cigar industry Kumbaya. I’m just asking for people to stop this small amount of dangerous behavior before it’s too late. Quite frankly, I’m asking people to act like adults.
Given recent events, I’m quite fearful that discourse like this will only encourage more of these problematic cigars because people might find it “cool” to do the opposite of everyone else. Some might frame continuing to sell cigars like this as some sort of “last stand” against government tyranny. Worse, there’s an increased desire to place everything in the framework of us versus them and people’s desire to choose trolling over working.
I’m here to tell you that cigars packaged with images of ice cream on them are not punk. Releasing them is not some sort of counter-culture movement. It’s not even standing up against the man. It’s not about freedom of speech. Quite frankly—at this point—any company announcing a cigar with an image of Rocky Road ice cream on it is doing it, in part, because they know it will cause a shitstorm. And the controversy that ensues can be addicting. For a company like Jas Sum Kral, you got an editorial about it. You are probably going to get statements by the cigar industry’s establishment to call you out. You can market this as JSK versus the world type of social media war where you rally your customers to buy your products while talking shit about other companies. You can play the victim card and claim that the little guy is being crushed.
Or, you can resist the urge, not introduce products like this and get back to selling the cigars that actually pay your bills.
Earlier this month, the Premium Cigar Association (PCA) put out a statement clarifying(?) that it would like cigar companies to not sell products that could be construed as marketing to children. The statement was pretty useless and challenging to read. It was confusing enough that we didn’t really know what to do with it at halfwheel, but somehow, less than a month later, the issue is relevant again.
Here’s what the PCA should have said. And not just on Feb. 1, 2022. Here’s what the PCA, the IPCPR before it, the CRA, and quite frankly, people like me, should have been telling you all along. Though, this is 3,000 words of stuff that seems so obvious.
1. “MARKETING TO CHILDREN” IS A MAJOR CONCERN OF FDA
The above is how FDA’s own website describes The Tobacco Control Act, the landmark bill that gave FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products. You will note, that the first things FDA mentions—beyond the bill itself—is that the Tobacco Control Act “Restricts Tobacco Marketing and Sales to Youth.”
If you spend any amount of time reading literature from FDA about what it is trying to do with tobacco regulation and product approval, two themes become very clear. One, FDA will not approve a product it believes raises new concerns for public health (i.e. is more dangerous); two, FDA will not approve products it believes are attractive to children.
2. IT’S NOT ABOUT ACTUALLY TRYING TO SELL A CIGAR TO A KID
If your argument is “adults like chocolate ice cream” or “adults like Sesame Street too” combined with “and I’ve never tried to sell a cigar to a 12-year-old,” this is going to be a tough article to comprehend.
The threshold isn’t whether or not someone under the age of 21-years-old buys a Jas Sum Kral Munchies Rocky Road, the problems will start before an illegal sale takes place. The issue is about some products using imagery or descriptions that are uniquely more attractive to children than others. It doesn’t matter what any cigar company’s intent is, it matters how the intent is perceived. More specifically, how it’s perceived by people whose paychecks come from FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, people whose job it is to regulate tobacco. Why give FDA any chance to misinterpret whether or not this is supposed to be Cookie Monster?
In the case of the Rocky Road cigar packaging, it definitely seems like Jas Sum Kral is suggesting that these cigars have flavors of chocolate and marshmallows. That’s a problem whether or not you’d like it to be one.
I am surprised and disappointed that this chocolate bar packaging is back. I’m all for creativity, but this is the shit that FDA really cares about. -> RT @halfwheel: United Cigar & JRE Create Aladino Limited Cigar Bar #cigars https://t.co/9jf3U7htK3 pic.twitter.com/8jXIfJRcYT
— Charlie Minato (@charlieminato) September 28, 2021
3. NOT MARKETING TO CHILDREN IS A CORNERSTONE OF THE PREMIUM CIGAR INDUSTRY’S DEFENSE AGAINST FDA
Whenever the premium cigar industry talks about why it should be regulated differently than other tobacco products, there are the same talking points used:
- These products are all natural, not addicting, etc.
- These products don’t market to children. They are too expensive, they are sold at specialty stores and not gas stations, they aren’t used as blunts.
This has been the argument for as long as I’ve been writing about cigars. It’s an argument that has been repeated millions of times to FDA officials, members of Congress, White House staffs, state legislators, international tobacco regulators, consumers who are asked to join the legislative fight and even to bystanders who have never smoked a cigar.
When FDA sees examples of products that can be construed as marketing to children, the whole argument crumbles. It doesn’t matter that 99.99 percent of cigars have nothing to do with an ice cream flavor. FDA is going to repeatedly use cigars like this as an example that premium cigars are marketed to children and it will be used to call into question decades of work on the legislative side.
And there’s no way around this. The conversation will go something like:
Cigar Industry: No premium cigar companies market to children.
FDA: Okay, what about this cigar with Cookie Monster on it?
Cigar Industry: First, is that Cookie Monster? Second, that was one small company, one time and no one else does that.
FDA: Okay, but what about this Rocky Road cigar?
Cigar Industry: That’s another company but I’m not sure the cigar actually tastes like Rocky Road ice cream.
FDA: You were saying no premium cigars are marketed to children?
Cigar Industry: Yeah, I mean, other than those two examples, NO ONE has ever sold cigars that could be considered marketing to children.
FDA: So, there are these Aladino cigars that look wrapped like a candy bar…
You can understand how the FDA—already predisposed to not being friendly towards tobacco products—might not be willing to buy what the cigar industry is selling. Furthermore, you could understand how some pissed off vape companies might wonder why premium cigars are getting special treatment while vape companies get uniquely stricter rules because of allegations that they market to children.
4. “FIRST THEY CAME FOR BIG BIRD CIGARS…”
First of all, actual Nazis are Nazis. If you head to the comments section with arguments that involve appropriating a genocide, there’s a decent chance I’ll remove your comment.
But if your argument is “first they are going to take away the Big Bird and Rocky Road cigars, next you are going to tell me that we can’t have use ‘Natural’ to describe a cigar’s wrapper color…” Well, I agree with you.
If people keep trying to sell cigars with Sesame Street cartoons and pictures of ice cream on them, then yes, eventually a whole bunch of other things are going to go away.
This is not the first step, that happened in 2016. This isn’t the last step either. My fear is about the next step. Products that can be construed as marketing to children are going to make FDA’s next step far more vicious.
5. NO ONE IN THE CIGAR INDUSTRY WANTS MORE RESTRICTIONS ON MARKETING AND PACKAGING
I would like to point out that in 2016, many if not most cigar companies were preparing for a world where larger warning labels would be required on cigar packaging and advertisements. Ultimately, a court ruled FDA did not have the legal authority to justify those warning labels, but that court case probably goes very differently in a world where FDA can provide examples of premium cigar products that appear to be marketing to children.
Furthermore, it’s not going to just be warning labels. Here’s an example of other restrictions on packaging that other countries have recently enacted:
- In France, companies cannot use words like “Natural” or “Cream” in the names of the cigars. Anything that is considered to be an appetizing name cannot be used on the packaging of a cigar.
- In The Netherlands, companies cannot use metallic or foil packaging on cigars.
- In Ireland, cigars must be sold in plain packaging.
Finally, I am of the belief that if FDA began to strictly regulate advertising, the cigar industry would suffer nine-figure losses, hundred of millions of dollars. Sure, halfwheel probably dies. The larger issue would be if FDA seriously tries to enact warning label restrictions on online sales, something that could decimate all retailers ability to sell products over the internet due to logistical issues. Even if you are staunchly in the camp of brick-and-mortar cigar retailers, you do not want FDA strictly enforcing previously proposed rules to internet sales. It would not only affect places like halfwheel or Cigars International, it would—in my opinion—put many cigar manufacturers out of business entirely.
6. YOU CAN’T PROPOSE SELF REGULATION WHEN YOU DON’T SELF REGULATE
Self-regulation isn’t fun. I’d much rather live in a world where people could put whatever they want on a cigar box and not have to worry about the consequences. But that world does not and has not existed for hundred of years.
Choosing not to put a Sesame Street character on a cigar is self-regulation. It’s an alternative to FDA regulation and I think most people in the cigar industry would prefer it that way. But it only works when the whole industry participates in it and I don’t care whether you feel like you have an appropriate seat at the table, or think the PCA’s leadership is criminal or whatever the response is that came in to your head when you read “when the whole industry participates…”
Sure, Rocky Patel sells a cigar infused with flavors like cherry, chocolate and coffee. That’s not relevant to the cigars sold with pictures of Rocky Road ice cream on it. Today, the argument is solely about how the cigars are presented, not what’s inside. If you want a seat at the table, or if you want things to be “more fair,” or if you want your business to be around in five years, it’s going to take some self-restraint to not sell cigars in packaging that intentionally looks like candy bars. If you think that world sucks, you can pick up your things and go in a time machine, because it’s not going to get any better, especially not when Monday in the cigar world gets to include a discussion about “whether or not it looks like Cookie Monster.”
7. RETAILERS SHOULD STOP BUYING PRODUCTS FROM THESE COMPANIES
Capitalism should have consequences. I don’t want to see anyone’s business suffer, but if you are a retailer and if companies continue to sell products you think are problematic from a regulatory aspect, you should use your power and stop buying from those companies until they engage in better corporate responsibility. It’s the most effective way to get these things to stop short of the FDA outlawing them.
It’s not great. I certainly wish it wouldn’t come to this. The power I have is editorials like this that are more likely to encourage some of these companies than they are to discourage them. However, retailers’ power has dollars and cents attached to it and I’d ask you to use it. Be like that misattributed Gandhi quote, be the change you want to see in the world.
I constantly hear people complain about why the cigar industry stops doing X because of FDA. Most have no evidence that FDA cares about these things. One thing it does seem to care about: flavors to children.
Privada isn’t the first, won’t be the last. pic.twitter.com/VCyLzuvLCI
— Charlie Minato (@charlieminato) June 1, 2021
8. THE INEVITABLE DISCUSSION OF “CANCEL CULTURE”
I subscribe to the theory that “cancel culture” is a new term used by racists, rapists and other bad actors to describe a word I learned when I was a child: consequences.
While some of you get offended by that, I’d remind you: I’m not advocating for anyone’s right to sell cigars to be removed. I’m not even advocating for the removal of the right to sell these products. I’m asking that companies choose to not to sell products like this before a government entity says the same thing and more.
The comments section is open for anyone to provide reasons as to why it’s necessary to sell a cigar with Cookie Monster’s face on it. My starting argument is: if the cigar is good enough, it shouldn’t need a Sesame Street character on it. Please place your rebuttal below.
But more to the point, when discussions like this happen, people want to focus on everything other than obvious.
It seems very obvious that there are two different paths for the future:
- All cigar companies avoid selling products like this and the FDA regulations are what they become.
- (Some) cigar companies sell products like this and the FDA regulations are worse than they are in the first option.
If you have some sort of other idea as to how those aren’t the two options, I’d love to know what hypothetical planet this is and how I can teleport there. It seems quite clear that those are realities. You can choose to be part of the first one and reap the benefits, or you can make everyone suffer the second world. The second world is bad for everyone, but I think that world is uniquely worse for smaller, newer companies, i.e., most of the companies engaging in this behavior.
9. TROLLING HAS CONSEQUENCES
The Premium Cigar Association struggles with a lot of things, and there are many parts of its job that I think it does not do well.
But things are not getting any better if companies choose to introduce new products like this. Mind you, the three products I keep mentioning—the Aladino cigars packaged like candy bars, Privada Cigar Club’s Sesame Street-themed cigars, and Jas Sum Kral’s Rocky Road cigar—aren’t from 2017, all three of these have been introduced (or expanded) in the last year or two.
Nothing good comes of the PCA being put in a position to decide whether it is going to let a cigar company exhibit at its trade show because of the PCA’s own concerns about the products it sells. There’s no world where me writing articles like this is better than the world where I don’t feel the need to. And if the goal is to get attention by being controversial for the sake of being controversial, be better. Put in the work and get known for the fruits of months of labor, not for having the hottest take on a Tuesday.
For the record, the PCA should not only prohibit companies from exhibiting products that could market to children; I don’t think it should have those companies at the trade show at all. Now, I’m not sure who at the PCA I would task with making these decision, but it seems quite clear: if you kicked out the vapor and e-cigarette companies because of concerns over what image it showed the FDA, these cigar companies cannot be allowed inside the trade show.
The IPCPR did that very thing in 2015, now it’s time to extend that same policy to cigar companies.
10. EVERYONE LEFT STANDING GETS TO PAY THE PIPER
The part that is so infuriating about this is that the entire cigar industry will pay for the actions of a few. Not just the actions of a few, but the actions relating to a small percentage of sales for those few. It seems pretty clear that flavored cigars aren’t paying Jas Sum Kral’s bills yet because it hasn’t sold any. I’d be surprised to learn that its CBD- or THC-infused Nuggs products are a sizable part of its sales. The sold-out Cookie Monster cigars probably generated $0 in revenue for Privada Cigar Club this past week, and Two Guys Smoke Shop/United Cigar sells a lot more cigars in packaging that isn’t designed to look like a candy bar than cigars that are.
I could understand someone’s defiance towards my argument a bit more if it seemed like these products were a noticeable—let alone essential—part of someone’s business. But it seems quite obvious that they aren’t.
And yet, we are all going to pay for it at some point in the future.
Big companies like My Father and Perdomo; larger companies like Cigars International and Arturo Fuente; smaller like companies like RoMa Craft and Oscar Valladares. Quite frankly, companies like halfwheel.
There’s no way FDA can isolate what it considers bad actors and shield the consequences of their behavior from the industry at large. Sure, maybe it goes after some of these companies harder than others—Jas Sum Kral certainly seems like a priority for FDA given its CBD-infused cigars, THC-infused cigar and its Fuck the FDA cigar—but the inevitable next set of rules will apply to everyone.
When FDA responds to this and introduces more stringent rules for cigars, who knows how many of the companies are still trying to sell cigars with ice cream on the packaging. Perhaps some of them won’t exist. But I get the sense that Padrón and Plasencia will still be trying to sell their own cigars, I suspect JR Cigar will remain in business, I hope halfwheel is still trying to review the products and hopefully you’re still reading the website. And if that is the case, we’re all going to pay for these new regulations. We’ll pay for the lawsuits, some of us will spend the actual time trying to lobby against them, all of us will be required to comply with the next set of rules. And consumers—as is always the case—will get to pay the monetary costs associated with these efforts.
Some companies—including those who never engaged in this behavior—might not be able to afford it. And that sucks.
Anyone who makes it to this point of the article and then decides to release a cigar with Ninja Turtles on it or in a coffin designed to look like a popsicle, you are knowingly gambling with other people’s money, and you’re doing it without their consent. That’s when recklessness becomes insulting.
BEFORE YOU WRITE “CHARLIE, YOU NEED TO TAKE THIS POST DOWN BEFORE FDA SEES IT…”
You don’t say…
Here’s Jas Sum Kral’s press release as it was sent to me:
Jas Sum Kral Munchies
Flavored or infused cigars are a huge part of the cigar industry, yet many connoisseurs of traditional cigars despise them. And when you ask them why, the answer often boils down to the chemical taste of the sweetened wrapper and the overdose of flavoring, masking the poor quality of tobacco and the real tobacco flavor.
Jas Sum Kral owner Riste Ristevski decided to tackle the issue. A premium handmade cigar with quality tobacco but with enhanced flavors. Flavors that don’t overpower or mask the taste of great tobacco, and without the chemical taste of a sweetened wrapper.
The Jas Sum Kral Munchies are made at Tabacalera Aragon in Esteli, Nicaragua with a Mexican San Andres wrapper. The binder and filler remain a company secret. The first release is the JSK Munchies Rocky Road, but other enhancements will soon follow. Until all are released, the Munchies are only available online via the JSK website. The cigars come in a resealable five-pack with an MSRP of $40. The cigars will debut at the annual Ristefari event at the Golden Leaf in Hobart, Indiana. The event takes place on March 12.
A few of the enhancements to follow are Banana Cream Fosters, Crunch Berry Cereal, and Nuttela. But it won’t end there, Jas Sum Kral has more surprising flavors planned. Stay tuned, stay hungry.