When two legislative bills severely restricting cigar commerce burst onto the scene in July, the blood of many retailers ran cold.

The "Cigars are No Safe Alternative Act" in the House of Representatives, and the separate but nearly identical "Cigars are Not a Safe Smoking Alternative Act" in the Senate both require federal warning labels on cigars, ban electronic media advertising, and - most troubling - prohibit all self-serve access to cigars and ban mail order and Internet sales entirely. Could anyone have concocted a worse nightmare if they tried? And since when did the leisurely cigar become a greater threat to consumers than the ongoing attack on cigarettes? Since the (already defunct) cigar craze set off clanging bells in the halls of our government, that's when.

Truth be told, cigar manufacturers currently fighting a growing nuisance of state-level labeling requirements would find solace in federal jurisdiction of the matter: One set of nationwide packaging standards as exists for nearly every other scrutinized consumer product. The labeling issue is considered eminent, despite the fact that a vast majority of cigars sold already carry California warnings. But if the labeling issue was the least troubling aspect of these bills, nearly all of the other aspects were downright chilling.

Prohibiting direct public access to cigars goes completely against the grain of cigar shopping. While similar restrictions on cigarettes (mandated only on city levels to date) nobly aim to prevent youth access to a product that involves little interaction on the part of adult buyers, cigars are an entirely different matter. Examining cigars up close, savoring their aroma, assessing their size and shape are all part of the cigar shopping experience. It is this "hands-on" aspect that separates the corner cigar shop from the mail order and Internet retailers.

That option would be null and void anyway, because the bills would outright ban all catalog and Internet sales of cigars. Major catalog operations such as Thompson, JR Cigar, Fred Stokker, and Holt's, as well as hundreds of retailers with website operations, would all lose out. "If this passes," Lew Rothman, president of 800-JR Cigar noted, "we'd all be out of business."

All of the usual suspects can be seen behind these bills: slanted research, inaccurate interpretation of trends, and a pick-and-choose selection of facts. But that's business as usual in the halls of politics.

The initiatives cite findings from a report on cigars issued by the National Cancer Institute in August which further distorted the issue, describing an "alarming" rise in cigar consumption since 1993 (did anyone hear about the subsequent cigar glut?) and basing the "average" cigar smoker as a five-cigar-per-day user.

The only good news in any of this is the high probability that the time hasn't yet arrived for these bills. According to the Cigar Association of America, they serve as a portent of things to come, but thanks to the lack of political clout from their sponsors, serious movement of either bill is considered unlikely.

So once again a warning shot has been fired, and the industry is put on notice. Whether it can effectively respond for the long haul remains to be seen. Let's hope it can, because retailer's livelihoods are at stake.

E. Edward Hoyt III