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FDA plan to regulate cigars, other tobacco products could jeopardize Black & Mild brand name

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RICHMOND, Va. - Plans to regulate cigars and other tobacco products the same as cigarettes may threaten one of the nation's top-selling cigar brands — Black & Mild.

Under the Food and Drug Administration proposal, cigar makers would have to remove descriptions like "light," ''mild," ''medium" or "low" from their products, raising a unique question about the fate of Black & Mild.

The descriptions were banned for cigarettes under a 2009 law because many smokers wrongly thought they meant the products were less harmful than "full-flavour" cigarettes. Cigarette makers have since replaced those words with colours such as gold, silver, blue and orange on such brands, which usually feature different filters and milder-flavoured blends.

In a filing made public Monday, Richmond-based Altria Group Inc., which owns Black & Mild maker John Middleton Co., voiced concerns that the proposal may force them to abandon or change the brand name.

The company argues the brand name isn't intended to tell smokers that they're any less harmful, citing a company-sponsored survey of more than 300 cigar smokers, none of which mentioned the words "health," ''risk," or "safety" in their response to what the brand name conveyed. It asked the FDA to clarify whether a ban on the terms would extend to cigars and its trademark, and said any ban on the brand name would be unconstitutional.

"Neither FDA's regulatory authority or the First Amendment allows the FDA to ban words such as mild for cigar and pipe tobacco regardless of the context," said Altria spokesman David Sutton. "Here, when the word is part of a longstanding and well-established trademark like Black & Mild, such a ban would violate basic constitutional guarantees."

The FDA declined to weigh in specifically on the Black & Mild name but is reviewing more than 75,000 comments on its proposals, which also includes regulation of the increasingly popular electronic cigarettes.

The Black & Mild cigar brand was launched in 1980, after John Middleton Co. began filling its large, machine-made cigars with pipe tobacco. The company that dates back to 1856 was bought by Altria in 2007.

Shipments of Black & Mild fell about 3 per cent in 2013 to 1.18 billion cigars and had a 29.2 per cent share of the U.S. retail market. It shipments are up about 5 per cent in the first half of 2014.

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Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.

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