What good is a Penfolds Grange Cabernet Sauvignon if its bottle is identical to Barefoot? A Rolls Royce without its signature double R and boxy wide grill? Or a handmade Davidoff Churchill cigar without the Prime Minister’s silhouette?
After all, too much wine could one day kill you. So can cars. The risks of smoking are well known. Why not make all of life’s luxuries—big and small—uniform, mundane, and so indistinguishable that they are, alas, unappealing?
Nanny-staters in Australia have done just that in their crusade against smoking, stripping brands and logos away from not just cigarettes, but cigars, which are not addictive and not inhaled. As a result, the plain packaging law the country passed five years ago is having devastating consequences for an economy a world a way that depends on tobacco: the Dominican Republic, and the men and women who make that nation’s premium handmade cigars.
Plain packaging laws rest on the belief that consumers are so weak-minded that a shiny label will get them hooked on smoking. Strip away the Marlboro font, leave it with the blandest olive-green color, uniform type, add a photo of a dying person for dramatic effect, and kids won’t smoke.
Studies suggest the law has reduced the appeal of cigarette smoking, though those results occurred at the same time excise taxes continued to increase. Other studies found no evidence the law has been a success.
Cigars were not the stated target of Australia’s plain packaging law, but nevertheless got wrapped into the legislation. Stripping trademarks and brands from the handmade cigars produced in the Dominican Republic—the largest exporter in the world—not only affects their economy; it offends their heritage.
‘We call it democratic crop’
"We had tobacco before we had a country," said Roberto Despradel, an economist and vice president of DASA, a Dominican based consulting firm.
Despradel led the first meeting on a press junket organized by the Dominican Republic government to Santo Domingo, which would turn into a week of briefings by officials, walkthroughs of tobacco factories, sharing smokes with cigar moguls, and a tour of the Santiago countryside.
The purpose of the trip was clear. The government desperately wants to change the narrative that plain packaging is only about consumer health, and to gather support in its case against Australia before the World Trade Organization.
The Dominican Republic is still a developing economy, but it is developing swiftly. GDP was up 7 percent in 2015. The country is largely dependent on the tobacco industry, its second largest job creator, employing over 118,000 people. The industry exports roughly $780 million worth of handmade cigars per year. The vast majority goes to the United States, and the rest mostly to the European Union.
Although Australia only accounts for a small portion of its tobacco exports, the Dominican Republic fears other countries will adopt similar laws, and is seeking a favorable decision from the WTO to turn the tide against plain packaging.
The Dominican Republic is constantly trying to attract new businesses to its "Free Zones," regions mainly in the north central area with low tax rates. Plain packaging makes it nearly impossible for new tobacco companies to flourish. Established cigar makers like Davidoff or Romeo y Julieta could, perhaps, survive solely on the strength of their names. The same cannot be said of new manufacturers that could not establish their brand.
"When you eliminate the brand of the product you reduce the value of the product," Despradel said. "It becomes a lower class product."
Katrina Naut, the director of foreign trade for Dominican Republic’s Office of Foreign Trade, which is responsible for trade agreements, emphasized that evidence plain packaging works is spotty, but said that it has very real consequences for her country.
"How can you take a measure you don’t even know will work [until] generations down the road, while damaging an economy like the Dominican Republic in the process?" she said. "What are we doing? [It’s about] how to control what you buy and what we can sell. At some point this is going out of control."
"First of all, we believe that we are right in defending our nation," said Dominican Republic Ambassador to the WTO Luis Manuel Piantini, who looks like a man of the old world, and speaks in a thick accent.
"We call it democratic crop," Piantini said. "It is not only a crop, it represents, in a certain sense, the nationality of the Dominican Republic."
Piantini understands that there can be restrictions on smoking—he has to smoke his cigars on the roof, not inside—but said it ultimately comes down to choice.
"Tobacco is just simply a pleasure," he added. "You have it after dinner. You have it with a drink. It’s not a vice. Human kind, men, have lived in freedom and been raised in freedom to choose what they want."
An emphasis on protecting health was frequently voiced throughout meetings during with diplomats, politicians, and trade officials. Much like the pizza chains fighting Obamacare’s bizarre calorie labeling regulations or the school cafeteria associations fighting for a little bit more salt in kid’s lunches, Dominican government officials found it necessary to toe the politically correct line of insisting they agree with the Australian government’s stated aim to promote public health.
It wasn’t until traveling to Santiago to be among the real cigar makers, moguls, and factory workers where their pride left no room for political correctness.
‘Packaging is like dissecting my family, my mother. It’s opening my heart’
A decade ago Carlito Fuente, a third generation cigar maker, started a school in Santiago called the Cigar Family. Essentially a charter funded by tobacco magnates and cigar-friendly donors, the school currently enrolls 450 children, who learn everything from foreign languages, math, and dentistry, to karate and dance.
David Luther, a developer who has lived in the Dominican Republic for six decades, waits at the door with dozens of children presenting an American flag. Around 70 years old, with a Margaritaville cap sitting atop his head, Luther is a good advocate for the school, which he calls the "showcase for educational excellence in the Dominican Republic."
Wealthy cigar aficionados travel to Santiago to see where the wrappers for Arturo Fuente cigars are made, unaware of Fuente’s other passion: education.
"This is not just promotion to sell more cigars," Luther said. "He doesn’t have to."
Thomas Keller, the chef of French Laundry, was visiting with Carlito Fuente and touring his facilities last week. He could end up being one of the many donors to the school who, by donating $2,000, earn a spot on a brick wall that exhibits an eclectic list including Rudy Giuliani, Dan Marino, and a small cigar shop in Fargo, N.D.
Luther met Carlito Fuente at a charity golf tournament organized by Dominican baseball legend Juan Marichal, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants known for his high leg kick. It was there Fuente told Luther of his dream to build a small classroom for poor children in Santiago.
"I’m just a humble cigar maker," Fuente said. "I’m not a social worker. I’m not an educator. But I’ve been blessed and guided to find people like David and be able to accomplish these things."
Fuente said he’s seen the community transformed in one decade from one of constant violence, to one of peace, all made possible by cigars.
"It’s not about cigars; it’s about people," he said. "And I think for some reason, I believe—I’m very religious—that something the most powerful thing on earth brought us to this community, not to give us what we receive—one of the most famous trademarks in the world in our industry of handmade cigars—but to make us aware of the situation. I think things don’t happen by coincidence."
Fuente is notoriously press shy, but he allowed himself to be interviewed to make the case against plain packaging. Being asked about how the policies could affect the school, he said his blood pressure shot up "about 40 points."
"Packaging is like dissecting my family, my mother, it’s opening my heart," Fuente said. "Packaging in my world—if you come to our factory we make all of our boxes—labels are part of history. It goes back for centuries of my heritage."
"Every single detail on the packaging label has an emotional meaning," he said. "It goes back to my grandfather, my grandmother, things in our life. To destroy that it’s like getting Rembrandt, or getting some big painting and covering it up. It’s destroying history."
"When they discovered America, when they came to this island—the first discovery of what the native people were doing, they were enjoying tobacco," Fuente said. "To us, when I light a cigar and that smoke goes up, I feel it embraces my grandfather."
"To destroy that by wanting to destroy packaging, it seems like it’s immoral and it’s wrong and it’s politically—it’s destructive."
The real smoke filled rooms
The pavilion attached to the Davidoff factory was filled with two-dozen cigar magnates, each with a cigar in one hand, drink in the other. It turned out Fuente was not alone in his passion for his country’s tradition, and for the freedom to enjoy simple pleasures.
Nirka Reyes was entrusted with the premium Santiago cigar factory that has bared her family name for six generations.
"We take pride in what we do," she said, puffing away, calling handmade cigars the "most valuable heritage that we own."
"[The indigenous people] use the smoke of the tobacco as a way to communicate to the gods in a spiritual way for prayers," Reyes said. "And we can do that today. You will find this, and you see it around, you smoke with people from different cultures and you end up being friends. That is what the tobacco is for us. It is creating these ties that has descended from many generations. It is who we are."
Litto Gomez, whose La Flor Dominicana cigars are set apart by their distinctive, rich, peppery kick, echoed the sentiment.
"People go to the cigar shops, not only because they want to enjoy a cigar, but over time they have met friends," Gomez said, donning his signature Panama style hat, and smoking his full-bodied cigar. "They have met friends who are not necessarily from the same walk of life, different culture, different economic status, different vocation, and they all get together and they have great conversation."
"We don’t make cigars; we make reasons to enjoy life," said Hamlet Espinal, a representative from Davidoff, one of the most highly revered cigars in the world.
The rooms at the Davidoff factory, where workers diligently perfect the Churchills, Montecristos, and Macanudos throughout the various stages of humidifying, aging, and rolling, are smoke filled, too.
One person rolls 400 cigars a day, and most enjoy a smoke while they do. It is here where each cigar gets its meticulous wrapping, setting the Puro D’oro apart from the Aristocrat.
"I wish you all one day you will really know what cigars are all about," Gomez said. "Through a little bit of nostalgia, the shops and the lounge, and not just what people do in the cigar lounge, it’s something very special."
‘A dying breed’
The case against Australia before the World Trade Organization began in 2012. A panel was formed in 2014, and a decision is expected in May or June.
Thirty-five parties have joined the Dominican Republic, including Honduras, Cuba, Indonesia, and Ukraine. America is listed as a third party on the case, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has expressed strong support for the Dominican Republic’s cause, arguing plain packaging "undermines intellectual property, does not advance public health goals, violates international agreements, and sets a dangerous precedent for other industries."
Some government officials expressed optimism about the case, but Naut, the Dominican Republic’s director of foreign trade, expects a ruling partly in favor of the Dominican Republic, and partly in favor of Australia.
"In the WTO you never win everything," she said.
The case is not about reversing Australia’s law, but stopping other countries from adopting similar measures.
The efforts of the Dominican Republic may be too late. The European Union, Canada, France, and others are all considering plain packaging laws. The United Kingdom will become the second government to establish plain packaging in May, though the law will exempt cigars, which make up a declining market in the UK.
Such is the tendency of nanny-staters everywhere. A Democrat-controlled Congress and FDA under the Obama administration unsuccessfully tried to push through graphic warning labels on cigarettes, which a federal appeals court found violated the First Amendment. The latest targets of the FDA are electronic cigarettes, and cigars, as the agency vows to use "powerful regulatory tools" against all tobacco products.
A lingering question during the week in the Dominican Republic was, what took so long to fight back? Why is the government just now flying journalists from all over the world to make its case?
The answer lies in customs as old as the cigars themselves. By nature the people of the Dominican Republic are non-confrontational. They just want to live their lives. Why would they think some law a country passed 10,834 miles away would affect their way of life?
"We’re like Jurassic Park, we’re a dying breed," Carlito Fuente said. "I hope to be the last, but I hope that I’m not alone."