Marketing to Kids?: The “Munchies” Conundrum

Progressive cigar maker, Jas Sum Kral, recently announced their upcoming release of Munchies, a new line of infused cigars with flavors that mimic the taste of some our favorite treats, adding “…flavors that don’t overpower or mask the taste of great tobacco, and without the chemical taste of a sweetened wrapper.” JSK’s first Munchies release is “Rocky Road”, a take on the popular ice cream confection, which is being debuted in the US on March 12 at a local Indiana brick-and-mortar retailer. But before it could make a complete round, it is Jas Sum Kral’s press release itself that is garnering the lion’s share of attention as critics were quick to highlight the company’s detailed packaging, depicting a mound of Rocky Road ice cream, dotted with chocolate chips and marshmallows, that could potentially cause some heartburn for the greater cigar industry.

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Flavored cigars are certainly nothing new and there is no shortage of cigar makers, large and small, who market their infused products to adult consumers who enjoy, or even prefer, the essences of flavors like coffee, honey, chocolate, etc in their cigars. And while you may be thinking, “so what’s the problem?”, it was Charlie Minato, editor/co-founder of Halfwheel, who shone a light on the issue of Munchies’ problematic packaging and its potential for being perceived as marketing to children. You can read Halfwheel’s full editorial, published on Tuesday, March 1, here.

JSK’s response to Halfwheel’s editorial was swift, which included a number of various comments to Halfwheel’s post by JSK’s legal team as well as JSK founder, Riste Ristevski himself. On Monday, March 7, JSK also prepared and issued the following formal press release in response:

“I waited a few days to respond to the aforementioned editorial because I wanted to see the reaction that Mr. Minato would receive to his editorial critiquing the name of Jas Sum Kral’s new “Rocky Road” flavored cigar.
On behalf of Jas Sum Kral’s owner and founder, Riste Ristevski, I want to thank the many friends and customers for the supportive responses that Mr. Ristevski has received after the editorial. The reaction has been overwhelmingly favorable to Jas Sum Kral.

So, let us respond by first making this abundantly clear- JAS SUM KRAL IS NOT MARKETING TO CHILDREN.

We do not take lightly Mr. Minato’s concerns regarding FDA intervention. JSK does not wish to harm the premium cigar industry that it loves. We welcome any discussions about industry standards that will promote the continuation of our products.

But, let’s be frank. In today’s “politically correct” world, you have to be a bit of a rebel to be a premium cigar smoker. You are demanding to be different than the rest of the crowd. I am not saying that smoking a Rocky Road cigar transforms you into a later day James Dean. But, we are all looking for a new premium handmade cigar that blends flavor with quality. That is what Jas Sum Kral and Riste Ristevski are trying to accomplish- creating a product that enhances the smoking experience by trying something new. Sometimes, you may feel the need for the flavor of toffee/vanilla/baking spices, so you smoke Jas Sum Kral’s Red Knight. Sometimes, you feel like a “nut,” so you reach for the Rocky Road.

Because Mr. Ristevski and Jas Sum Kral want to be crystal clear of their child safety message, Riste and JSK will donate 5% of Rocky Road profits to a non-profit that works to keep kids tobacco-free. Since these organization cannot accept money from the tobacco industry, the donation will be made by Mr. Ristevski personally. In the meantime, Jas Sum Kral will continue to sell cigars only at premium locations and at shows where sales can be strictly monitored.

Riste Ristevski and Jas Sum Kral thank you for your support!”

– Jeff Scholnick, Esq.
General Counsel for Jas Sum Kral

While the above response does attempt to set the record straight regarding marketing to kids, somehow it also devolves into, well, just more marketing speak. What it doesn’t really speak to is how it would address the perception (and impact) that this style of marketing could draw unjustified attention to the rest of the industry. The fact that Halfwheel’s article prodded them to begin a donation project to keep tobacco away from kids, while noble, and a good thing, further demonstrates either a lack of understanding of Minato’s argument or a reactionary attempt to simply do some quick damage control.

In his lengthy editorial, Charlie Minato takes aim at not only the fact that at least on it’s surface, JSK’s choice of packaging could be construed as an attempt to market to children, but also the more salient points of how the perception alone may affect current FDA regulation and the resulting ripple-effect to the larger cigar industry. I agree with Minato on his basic tenet that the last thing the cigar community and industry desire, is to give a corrupt federal bureaucracy like the FDA additional ammunition in its already unjustifiable and heavy-handed regulation towards cigars. Additionally, I believe Minato is also correct to point out that our fight against such regulation includes the legislative-tested argument that the cigar industry, in fact, does not market to children. Overall, Minato provides a solid foundation for his argument and that it’s not whats inside the package, it’s the “creepy candy coating”. And his editorial offers a lot of food for thought and covers a lot of ground, from PCA’s potential handling of exhibiting controversial cigars to self regulation within the industry itself (to not engage in questionable marketing/packaging).

We are big fans of what Charlie and company have created at Halfwheel and consider ourselves regular visitors. We appreciate Minato’s passion towards this subject as we too share genuine concern and love for this industry. While Minato organizes his thoughts very well, at some point his accusations, based on alleged motives, towards JSK and his acute criticism of others engaged in similar marketing strategies is problematic. In this writer’s opinion, he also loses traction by exploring hypotheticals and questionable interventions like, “I’m asking that companies choose to not to sell products like this before a government entity says the same thing and more.” Minato’s assertions into the motives of certain cigar makers and the choice of intoning such culturally charged social constructs of “cancel culture” and “trolling” erodes, not enhances, his righteous tone and causes his passionate discourse to unravel a bit. I get it, his heart is in the right place.

To be clear, I’m on the side of cigars, the community and everyone involved in making cigars. And we are profoundly against the words “tobacco” and “children” used in the same sentence. We partially agree with Minato as he effectively drives the point home that we must strive to NOT invite further scrutiny, but the problem with this argument is that it basically absolves the 800 lb gorilla in the room: the FDA. We agree that certain cigar makers who are indeed guilty of objectionable marketing for whatever reason, are an annoyance, but not THE problem. Holding cigar makers accountable for questionable business practices while ignoring the FDA is tantamount to the neighborhood kids speaking in hush tones or keeping each other in line to avoid pissing off the local bully. This, is where the fight is and where battles are being won by the cigar community. Going after individual cigar makers may seem like the most direct response, but this strategy also invites risk of self perpetuation.

Instead, lets continue to lobby for reform and get as close as we can to “cutting off the snake’s head.” Thanks to lobbyists like CRA, who have waged a solid campaign against the FDA with sound arguments backed by legitimate data, we are one step closer to either exemption or at least the suspension of further regulation. And while maybe not a “win”, just today it was announced that CRA’s work with NASEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) have provided additional, independent evidence that brings into question certain regulatory conclusions and really raises more questions, which depending on your interpretation, could be a good thing. Irrespective of our legislative efforts against the FDA, in every case, the larger industry cannot and should not be held accountable for even the perceived “sins” of a few. Another fight worth fighting.

The FDA’s flawed regulatory stance on cigars, lacking any meaningful data, began shortly after President Obama signed the Tobacco Act into law in 2009 on the precedent that cigars be included in an overall effort to monitor marketing efforts and keep tobacco products out of the hands of minors. The impetus for this decision was partly due to a 3rd-page article at the time of Indonesia’s fight with the US over its banned imports of clove cigarettes. This raised the threat of “flavored” tobacco as a “starter” to entice non-smokers. Compounding this, former Senator Henry Waxman, D-CA, in April, 2011 submits a letter to then FDA chief, Margaret Hamburg, requesting the FDA extend its ban to flavored cigars after considering the Kretek investigation. Kretek international, the leading US maker of clove cigarettes at the time, attempted to circumvent the new ban by making clove “cigars.” Waxman’s only intent was to protect minors and to hold Kretek accountable, not sound the alarm on cigars in general. We feel those “unintentional” moves to this day.

I, for one, am not a fan of infused cigars, so you won’t find any in my humidors. Do I think JSK crossed a line? In this case, close but no, I don’t. Did I think JSK’s packaging sent the wrong message? No. Do I worry about any fallout with the FDA and the resulting impact to the wider industry? Of course. I also have to believe that strict control of ‘who sells what and to whom’ exists and that paired with severe criminal consequences (which vary from state to state) to both underage buyers and less-than-vigilant proprietors alike, is enough to thwart any chance a Rocky Road cigar will end up in the hands of some kid. Even with Acid’s, Tatiana’s and CAO’s infused brands, kids are not buying cigars, regardless of marketing. According to the latest data, minors are not buying premium cigars, period.

Frankly, when I published this very press release, I raised an eyebrow only because I thought it was just another goofy product in an even goofier trend to be outrageous. In general, and I’m a purist here, I think some boutique makers are driving away from the status quo thinking they’ll attract newer generations of cigar smokers, and no, I’m not crazy about the former. Do I think others might be offended or put off? Sure. But, I don’t believe we should stamp out creativity or freedom of expression, as long as its not illegal and no one is hurt by it. So, what should be done about JSK and others of their ilk? Four words: let them be judged. Not cancelled, and not shamed in some perverse sort of coordinated public flogging. Let everyone in this business be judged. So, let the regulators judge fairly, backed by evidence and without prejudice. If that doesn’t work, let the consumer be the judge. Let the retailers and distributors be the judge. You be the judge. And own it. – In Fumo Pax!

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