WICKER PARK — The founder of an online tobacco company said he "can make no health claims" for his product but nevertheless wanted to offer an alternative to consumers in a market dominated by "an oligarchy of big tobacco companies."
Since opening for business Tuesday, David Sley, 28, said his company, Hestia Tobacco, has sold "a healthy amount of cartons" of its all-natural filtered craft cigars which are manufactured in Virginia and sold online.
Sales of Hestia products — named for a Greek goddess and bearing a pop art image of a woman on its label — are coming through word of mouth since tobacco companies are prohibited from advertising on Google or Facebook, Sley said.
While Hestia cigars are the same length and thickness as a standard 100 mm cigarette, Sley said "legally we have to call them cigars because they weigh more than three pounds per thousand."
The cigars — made of cedar-aged tobacco — are wrapped in two-thirds tobacco fiber, which enables the product to be classified as a cigar rather than a cigarette, Sley said.
As a cigar manufacturer, Hestia also doesn't have to abide by FDA laws requiring cigarette makers to use fire-safe paper, which Sley claims is loaded with chemicals and "is not good for you." (A Harvard Study, however, found fire-safe paper had little effect on already highly toxic tobacco products.)
The tobacco leaves in Hestia Tobacco's cigars contain no additives or reconstituted tobacco, which breaks up the stems and other parts of the leaves and laces them with nicotine.
Hestia Tobacco initially had planned to offer "organic" cigarettes and be a competitor to RJ Reynolds' American Spirits brand, which markets it produce as "100 percent additive-free." However, there were too many hurdles imposed by the FDA Tobacco Control Act, which was enacted in 2009 and tightly regulates new tobacco products, he said.
Sley's troubles with the act are documented in The Atlantic, which reported that of the 3,000 new tobacco applications submitted to the FDA since 2009, including Sley's, the agency is not ruling either way on whether to accept or deny them.
Sley contends that he's "told the FDA countless times [Hestia] is paper and tobacco" but his application is still "under scientific review."
About a year ago, Sley said he discovered that the cigar industry, regulated under the Tax and Trade Bureau, was not as bureaucratic as the FDA, so he changed direction and added more tobacco to his product so it could meet the minimum weight requirement for cigars.
Though the FDA will "certainly begin regulating cigars at some point," Sley said, "I'm just happy I already have a product on the market."
Sley operates the Hestia Tobacco brand out of his Milwaukee Avenue apartment in Wicker Park when he's not working at his day job in the finance sector Downtown.
As Sley does not yet have a distributor license, Hestia Tobacco partners with Firebird Manufacturing in South Boston, Va., which ship the cigars.
A single pack of Hestia Tobacco's cigars is $6, while a carton of 200 smokes or 10 packs is $50.
With shipping, a carton of cigars is $61, or about $6 per pack.
By maintaining an online presence and eliminating the middleman, Sley said he can offer smokes "at a lower price point."