Cigar smokers are trying to raise their profile in Washington, D.C., in advance of what they expect will be new regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Cigar Rights of America, a group that represents smokers, filed registration papers on Thursday to lobby Congress on legislation that would eliminate any FDA authority over cigars.
It is the first time the group has registered to lobby. The group was founded in 2009, the same year that Congress, after decades of debate, granted the FDA the authority to regulate cigarettes and other items that the agency says fall within the law's definition of "tobacco products."
"The cigar consumers of America have basically never thought a lot of the things that have happened would happen to them," said Glynn Loope, the Cigar Rights of America's executive director.
Those challenges include proposed tax increases and state and local smoking bans. The FDA has not proposed any restrictions on cigars - excluding them from requirements such as new warning labels - but it said in July it is planning to include them in its definition of "tobacco products."
Health advocates say Congress should not roll back the authority of the FDA because it is in the best position to evaluate who is using a product and what the impact is.
"The reason Congress gave FDA authority is so that the decisions would be made based on facts and science, and not political muscle," said Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Yao declined to comment on when the agency would issue a formal, proposed definition, but industry advocates said they are planning as if they will see something in early 2012.
Central to the argument of the Cigar Rights of America is that traditional cigars are different from cigarettes or the inexpensive, flavored cigars sold in some U.S. shops.
"The very price point of cigars puts them out of the hands of youth," Loope said.
The smokers' group has backing from cigar manufacturers and retailers, which together make up most of its funding so far, Loope said. He declined to give the group's membership but said it has individual members in all 50 states.
Legislation sponsored by Republican Representative Bill Posey and Democratic Senator Bill Nelson would carve out from the 2009 law an exception for "traditional large and premium cigars." That would include those wrapped in leaf tobacco with no filter and weighing "at least six pounds per 1,000 count."
The language is too imprecise for health advocates, who say it allows for candy-flavored cigars if they are large enough, for example.
Forty organizations, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Medical Association and the American Lung Association, sent a letter to Congress in September supporting FDA authority over cigars.
The smokers' group may help the cigar industry on other fights. Craig Williams, president of the Cigar Association of America, which represents manufacturers, said it could put a face on the industry as it battles taxes and smoking bans in U.S. state capitals.
"State legislatures tend to be more open to locals testifying as opposed to someone coming in from out of town," Williams said. The manufacturers' group is neutral on the federal legislation.