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New rules could leave cigar industry in ashes

By Joe Henderson, Special to the Times
Built in 1910, the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. factory speaks to an era when about 150 cigar manufacturers called Tampa home. Even with those days gone, Tampa is still known as the Cigar City.

A tour through the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in Ybor City is a wonderful step back through time. It doesn't matter if you're a smoker, or you never touch the stuff. This is about history and heritage.

That wonderful old building was built in 1910 and is known as El Reloj for the oversized landmark clock that sits on its top. The distinctive aroma inside, mixed with the clatter of wrapping machines, speaks to an era when about 150 cigar manufacturers called Tampa home. Even with those days long gone, Tampa is still known as the Cigar City.

The Food and Drug Administration isn't quite so nostalgic, though, and therein rests the battle lines between a federal agency and a family-owned local business. Right now, the FDA is winning. That great old era, like so much else, is threatened.

"This is so messed up," company president Eric Newman said.

This has been a story for a while now, but as a refresher, the short version is this: In its anti-tobacco campaign, the FDA mandated stringent new fees and regulations that Newman and other cigar company owners say could all but kill their industry.

The ruling affects new product lines those companies might want to introduce. Product churn is vital to an industry's growth, but therein lies the problem.

It could soon get too expensive to produce those new stogies for your Saturday night poker party. Companies might have to present a lengthy premarket tobacco application before they could send a new cigar to market. Newman said the FDA estimates this could take up to 5,000 hours to complete and cost $330,000 per application.

That agency has a lengthy backlog of applications for exemptions from cigarette and smokeless tobacco interests so it could take years before the FDA could even consider the application. Current products could be exempted from the new regulations if they meet certain requirements, but Newman said the FDA has been fuzzy about what those are.

Three groups representing cigar companies responded recently with a federal lawsuit against the FDA, seeking to get the new rules overturned. Barring quick action by the court, though, the regulations go into effect Aug. 8.

"I believe in regulation in this country," Newman said. "I'm a registered Democrat. But the restrictions the FDA put on us are insane. Cigarettes and vapors (e-cigarettes) are their target, and I understand that. But we cater to adults, not kids. Cigars aren't the same thing.

"If you see people standing outside a building these days who are smoking, they aren't smoking cigars."

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, as liberal a Democrat as they come, has been a champion for Newman in Congress. Her efforts to exempt cigars from these FDA rules hasn't gone anywhere, though, and nothing is likely to happen on that front until after the November election.

This is more than just the story of a business owner raging against the Washington machine, though. The company has more than 100 employees and sells its product in 61 countries.

I am not a smoker; let's be clear about that.

But I also don't think it's right to put cigars in the same category as cigarettes. If someone enjoys a fine cigar after dinner to unwind on the patio by the pool with a favorite beverage, a government agency staffed by unelected bureaucrats shouldn't get in the way.

I also don't think it's a public health issue, because if it was I wouldn't be writing this. This is about an iconic Tampa business trying to stay alive.

Like Newman said, this is messed up.

And time is running out.

Joe Henderson's column runs Sundays in the Tampa Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] Follow @JHendersonTampa