Swisher Sweets could be the next target of federal tobacco regulation.
A group of U.S. senators is urging the Food and Drug Administration to ban flavored cigars, claiming the "candy-like flavorings" increasingly are luring teens into the smoking habit -- even as they turn away from cigarettes.
"Cigars contain the same toxic and cancer-causing chemicals contained in cigarettes, and public health experts have warned that cigars are not safe alternatives to cigarettes," the senators wrote in a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
The letter comes as the FDA exerts newly granted authority to regulate tobacco products. The FDA in 2009 officially banned flavored cigarettes. Despite some confusion at the time, the regulation did not end up applying to many flavored cigars and cigarillos like Swisher Sweets or Black & Milds, which are among the most popular cigar products in the country.
The FDA has shown an interest in regulating cigars, and the senators on Thursday urged the agency to close what they described as the "regulatory loopholes" allowing the flavored brands to stay on the shelves.
"Cigars with candy-like flavorings such as strawberry, watermelon, vanilla and chocolate attract kids to smoking and help hook them on this addictive habit," they wrote. The letter was signed by Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
But the cigar industry is fighting back.
The International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association has been urging members and supporters to sign a petition to Washington warning the FDA not to regulate cigars. The petition claims regulation would "devastate" local stores across the country.
The group is worried cigar regulation -- which would stem from the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act -- could not only ban flavored cigars but ban everything from walk-in humidors to mail-order sales.
The group is trying to rally support for proposed legislation in Congress that would exempt "large and premium" cigars from FDA regulation.
The senators, in their letter, pushed only for a ban on flavored cigars. They warned that the products are becoming more popular among adolescents.
Citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stats, they said 1.8 million American high school students smoke cigars -- and another 475,000 middle school students.
"This ban would help decrease the staggering rate of cigar use by children and young adults by removing these harmful products from the marketplace," they wrote.
FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Yao said Friday it's a bit early to be talking about any kind of cigar ban, since the FDA still hasn't determined how and whether to regulate the industry.
"We would have to start regulating them before we would even consider a ban," she said.