TAMPA — The cramped confines of Marilyn Taylor's cubicle at Thompson Cigar Co. are a shrine of sorts to the company's stogie largesse.
Photos of smiling U.S. troops, clutching cigars in their hands or teeth, are tacked to the fabric walls. American flags that flew over outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan, now folded into tight triangles and mailed as tokens of gratitude, are perched on a ledge. A plaque from a U.S. Army sergeant thanks Taylor and her employer for "bringing us closer to home."
The century-old cigar retailer has donated cigars to American troops since World War I. And Taylor, whose title is international control buyer, has been in charge of the company's donations since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's reached the level of lore, and the troops know it," said Alix Franzblau, Thompson's chief operating officer. "They write us letters and say, 'My troop is here, can you send us cigars?' and that's what we've done."
But that time-honored tradition has come to a halt with new Food and Drug Administration regulations on cigars, e-cigarettes and other products that took effect Aug. 8
Among the regulations is what many interpret as a ban on the charitable donation of tobacco products. Premium cigarmakers and retailers like Thompson that have donated thousands of cigars each year risk fines or other sanctions if they keep giving.
Their hands, they say, are tied.
"The troops are out there putting their lives on the line to protect our freedoms, rights and privileges, and the federal government is taking away those same freedoms and rights," said Rocky Patel, owner of Rocky Patel Premium Cigar Co. in Bonita Springs. "This is how we can give back to our country and it's amazing the FDA unilaterally seeks to take that away. It just hurts me we're not going to be able to do this anymore."
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The freeze on donations is a troubling development for Mark Van Trees.
Van Trees runs Support the Troops, a Wesley Chapel-based nonprofit organization that sends care packages to bases in locations such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Cigars are the second-most-requested item in those packages, behind coffee and ahead of toothpaste and tube socks, Van Trees said.
Thompson has been the group's biggest supporter, donating 5,000 to 7,000 cigars a month. Patel has donated $60,000 to $80,000 worth of cigars annually. And J.C. Newman, the iconic Ybor City cigarmaker, gives about $20,000 to $30,000 worth of cigars each year
"It means the world to these guys who love to sit by the fire and smoke some sticks," Van Trees said. "This is going to put a huge hole in what we do for them."
Retired Army Sgt. Charles Claybaker of St. Petersburg knows firsthand the joy of puffing on a fine cigar far from home.
In 2009, Claybaker was serving with a 3rd Ranger Battalion platoon at a base in a remote, mountainous part of Afghanistan when a "Support the Troops" package arrived with cigars and playing cards, among other items. As a commanding officer, Claybaker was charged with keeping up morale, and the stogies helped.
"After a long mission and you get into a firefight or something like that, it's nice to have a cigar and play cards with your buddies," he said. "For a few minutes, it just makes you feel like you're back home, like you're American again, especially in a place like Afghanistan that culturally is so extraordinarily different."
It's not just the troops getting free cigars. Newman and other companies donate thousands more to charities each year for silent auctions, golf tournaments and other fundraisers.
"We're good citizens, and now the FDA says, 'No, no, no. No more charity,' " said J.C. Newman president Eric Newman. "There's never been a better example of a rogue government regulatory agency gone wild. If it weren't so serious, it would be comical."
Cigarmakers and retailers have been up in arms for months about the new regulations that impose stringent new fees and regulations on tobacco products and electronic cigarettes.
Premium cigarmakers say a new FDA review process for bringing new products to market will be lengthy and costly and could kill their industry. They argue that premium cigars should not be lumped in with traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes, also known as vape pens.
Adding insult to that injury, cigar companies say, is the chilling effect on charitable giving.
Some in the industry say a provision in the new FDA rules that forbids handing out free samples of tobacco products could apply to donated cigars. What's more, an existing rule under the Tobacco Control Act that forbids "the charitable distribution of tobacco products" now apparently applies to cigars, said Anna Wiand, a lawyer who specializes in regulated products for the GrayRobinson law firm in Tampa.
"It would now be unwise to make those donations with that express charitable donation prohibition," Wiand said. "I don't know how much of a priority this would be for the FDA, but it quite clearly is a prohibition under the regulatory regime we have."
Cigar companies across the country are heeding that advice, said Jeff Borysiewicz, president and founder of the Corona Cigar Co. and co-founder of Cigar Rights of America.
"Without a doubt, it's nationwide," said Borysiewicz, who reluctantly put a stop to his own company's giving. "A lot of times these things get determined when someone is given a citation, so at this point, everyone's being cautious."
In an emailed statement, an FDA spokesman did not address specific questions from the Tampa Bay Times about how the new rules on cigars apply to charitable giving.
"We encourage any newly regulated manufacturer or retailer to contact the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products with any specific questions regarding their responsibilities in complying with the rule," the statement says.
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With the approach of the new rules' effective date on Aug. 8, Thompson's Taylor rushed to mail more than 40 packages of donated cigars to U.S. troops abroad. She also sent Van Trees one more shipment — four pallets of boxes, or about 6,000 cigars, which Van Trees hopes will last a year or so.
But the requests from troops keep popping up in Taylor's inbox. She hasn't been able to bring herself to respond yet.
"I'll have to tell them … " she said, and trailed off.
"That we're sorry your federal government did this to you," said Franzblau, Thompson's chief operating officer.
"I literally start crying when I start to send the messages," Taylor said.
"It's time," Franzblau said.
Taylor sighed her assent.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.