Jeff Borysiewicz, owner of Florida cigar stores Corona Cigar, is the force behind the effort. He says that the premium cigar industry is made up primarily of small retail business owners who would be severely hurt by such regulation, and says the opposition is dominated by massive anti-tobacco groups.
"We feel like we're a liquor store that's open for business just before prohibition came around. We feel like we're on the cusp of that, unless Congress takes action," Borysiewicz says. "It's a very small industry and unfortunately we're having to deal with the federal government and get involved with politics."
And just how are they getting involved? By creating a hybrid PAC. A group of business owners formed the Puro PAC in December 2011.
Hybrid PACs are two-in-one deals. They are a combination of a traditional PAC that accepts money for candidates, and a super PAC that can take unlimited dollars to make independent expenditures and offset operating costs.
"Everybody that contributes to the PAC, these are individual business people that would much rather be putting their money into their families and businesses than into Washington, D.C.," Borysiewicz says.
Puro PAC has contributed $2,000 to Republican Rep. Bill Posey of Florida, who is the main sponsor of H.R. 1639. The bill has 208 cosponsors and is sitting in the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee.
Borysiewicz argues that premium cigars aren't bought by children and smoking them is "a lifestyle choice." But it's not just anti-tobacco groups that oppose the bill. Domestic cigar manufacturers and sellers point out that most premium cigars are imported, so preventing restrictions on them puts domestic products on an uneven playing field.
"We understand this Congress is all about 'Make It In America,' and protecting American jobs, but they put domestic manufacturers at a distinct disadvantage if they exempt a majority of imported cigars [from regulations]," says Joe Augustus, senior vice president of external affairs for Swisher International, a major domestic cigar company that also exports products to other countries.
So while Borysiewicz and other premium cigar retailers are busy ramping up support on the Hill for their cause, Augustus and others from the domestic cigar industry are meeting with consponsors of the proposed bills and "trying to get the facts out to them with what we believe is a more accurate assessment of the industry," Augustus says.
Swisher has a PAC, too, although they lag behind Puro's efforts. They've raised $140,015 this cycle and contributed $48,500 to eight House members and nine senators -- 90 percent of whom are Republicans.
Photo: Smoke curls around a cigar as a smoker enjoys a cigar at a shop in Richmond, Va., June 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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